23 August 2010

A kill-switch for intellectual integrity in the humanities

It is incredibly rare that I read a New York Times article that sends cold shivers down my spine the way no horror movie can, but the recent one about how the Wikipedia model might be changing the rules of peer review in academic journals made me literally cringe.

When I think back on my post-high school career, and how differently I thought as I left high school from when I left college, and how AmeriCorps and even Peace Corps changed even those views as I was continually exposed to more and deeper knowledge in communities of people who were struggling with the very same questions and issues (even if I completely disagreed with those people), I’ve come to understand how vital it is from a purely intellectual point-of-view to form those connexions. The sciences and the academic disciplines function similarly – you present a piece of work to your peers: people who have both experience with and an interest in the academic question or the scientific hypothesis you are posing; people who know your real name and who are willing to give you criticism (constructive or otherwise) under their own real names.

There are downsides to the process, naturally. Egos get involved. Academic battles and enmities arise. Though I do not know the specifics of the debate in geochemistry in which my father is primarily concerned, his views are immensely unpopular within his own circles and have extreme difficulty gaining traction. But the downsides of having academic debates contained within communities of people who have an understanding and a material interest in the field are vastly outweighed by the benefits. Criticisms are civil, for the most part. Criticisms conform to accepted standards of logic and reasoning. Criticisms are based in fact and according to the best understandings we have within the field.

Transferring these academic debates out of peer circles and onto the Internet is thus a monstrously terrible idea. Perhaps Dr Cohen, the George Mason University professor interviewed in the article who advocates such measures, would care to instruct himself in the subject beginning with this public service announcement (provided by a group of entertainers with a very clear and cogent understanding of how the Internet works to promote civility, rationality, community and factual debate).

A number of good points to be made here. Wikipedia editors are free to edit anonymously – with some exceptions, they don’t even need usernames, just IP addresses. The only reason Wikipedia is not a total wasteland is because they have bots and an active and dedicated team of professional editors who keep it relatively sane by reversing malicious edits and refereeing flame wars between interested parties on their discussion pages, but even Wikipedia is not really reliable for anything more than the most superficial information on any given subject, unless it is extensively sourced – and if you’re going to keep a dedicated team of professional editors who do just such selection of criticism, you might as well give them a break and keep your articles peer-reviewed anyway.

The deeper issue, though, is that of academia willingly subjecting itself to creationists, global-warming deniers and other such ignoramuses. Thankfully, the article was referencing only a certain number of journals in the humanities (the sciences so far seem exempt, and it is my sincere hope that they are wise, secure, sincere and self-aware enough never to attempt such a misguided stunt as this), but it is troubling all the same. The humanities are ostensibly academic disciplines which pose questions about what it means to be human; God help us all if we allow authority over such questions to fall into the hands of people who are insecure enough in their own humanity to spew vitriol and ignorance anonymously over the Internet.

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