In a world where opinions and insights pop up exponentially, to what extent can we rely on experts? And, moreover, just who is an expert? Ken Kosik, M.D., who co-directs the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California at Santa Barbara, raises these questions in a thoughtful essay in Harvard University’s Neiman Reports and suggests that, with the abundance of information available to us, no one is an infallible expert anymore.
In what he calls the ‘wikification of knowledge,’ Kosik maintains that medicine and journalism increasingly share the same challenges when it comes to gathering information and reaching conclusions in this new era of social media. At issue is a balancing act when it comes to weighing the wisdom of an expert with the modern-day equivalent of collective folk medicine.
“Within the potential of social networks lies untapped wiki knowledge poised to challenge the experts by opening wide the collective knowledge gate,” Kosik writes. “Wiki knowledge derived from a social network offers a fluid, open source, ongoing meta-analysis – a virtual collection of experiences that can be constantly updated as users enter more individual data. Social networks empower the ‘expert,’ be it a doctor or a journalist, because access to this community-generated knowledge is shared by all.”
Navigating this terrain, however, can be tricky, given the pitfalls he identifies: For one, those on a social network tend to be younger and not economically disadvantaged, which amounts to selection bias. Privacy is another factor, because networks of people can limit information that is shared. And entering false data on a social network can, of course, distort outcomes.
“While flickers of hope appear on the Web through encounters with others and a shared experience, judging the reliability of this experience – and its fit with our own – can be difficult. But to have the opportunity to find information and test its reliability means that no longer is one person – an expert – expected to know everything and render infallible judgment,” Kosik concludes. “That view is the no-longer tenable burden of the expert physician; nor can it any longer be the guiding belief of the trained journalist.”