Wikipedia:Credentials matter

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"A little learning is a dangerous thing" — Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism (1711)

In the wake of the Essjay controversy, a number of essays have been written against credentialing, including a policy proposal to Ignore all credentials. While the concern about abuse of credentials isn't totally unwarranted, the problem is being overstated. Wikipedia's worst problem with credentials isn't that editors abuse them; it is that editors do not respect them.

Most editors here lack credentials. Some are knowledgeable amateurs, and some are just amateurs, and some are outright cranks. But a small number are professionals in their fields. It isn't unreasonable to suppose that articles in their field should generally be able to suffer their review, but in all too many controversies, this isn't the case. Indeed, the expert rebellion movement arose from the complaints of professionals that they were finding the climate here inhospitable.

This is not to say that those with credentials should wave them about as a trump card. Such pomposity will win no friends. One would expect someone with a doctorate or other such certification to understand the need to present sources and other such supporting material, and policy or no policy, other editors are going to expect such verification.

Yet it is really quite unreasonable that those of us who aren't professionals should be so hostile to those who are. When nobody is allowed expressions of expertise, then everyone becomes an expert. And that is all too often how editing is done here. Editors without the credentials to back them up are far more confident about their positions than they should be. Amateurs may not have the experience or education necessary to evaluate sources adequately, or may not understand the material well enough to organize it into a coherent whole. And they may not be aware of how poor their understanding might be (the Dunning–Kruger effect). Experts are not perfect, but amateurs are on the whole less perfect, and especially in their judgement of the work of experts.

So if you are an amateur in a subject, and you find yourself in disagreement with a professional, ask yourself this: isn't it possible that I could learn from someone who has the credentials I lack?

On judgment[edit]

"The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook." — William James

Those who believe credentials don't matter may be right on the point that Wikipedia aims to source statements to reliable sources, and that having expertise doesn't free us from the stringent requirements of verifiability. But it does have a role for some topics in the humanities, the arts and so on.

An example: on an article on philosophical debates about the existence and nature of the soul, it is appropriate to give weight to the views of significant philosophers and theologians who have weighed in on this question. Ancient philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Epicurus had theories of what the soul is, as do Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Benedict de Spinoza and William James. But so does J.Z. Knight of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, and for just $1,000 she will tell you what the soul or spirit of a 35,000 year old warrior from Atlantis has to say about your health, wealth and sex life.

What distinguishes Plato or Spinoza or Aquinas from cranks and hustlers? Judgment. The reason that Plato's view of the soul is taught in undergraduate philosophy lecturers is because of a sort of unspoken consensus amongst philosophers that Plato is important and New Age babble is not.

What makes Shakespeare more worthy of the title "great literature" than Jilly Cooper? Judgment. What makes Beethoven more significant than Justin Bieber? Judgment.

Experts, "credentialed" or otherwise, are useful because in some areas, they are able to tell you whether or not something is taken seriously by other experts. This kind of judgment isn't usually published, because those experts spend their time studying what goes on inside their own field, rather than patrolling the border. Such judgment isn't always available in reliable sources. Such judgment is not often discussed publicly. It is very difficult to codify into rules (in the natural sciences, bibliometric measures rule but they do not work so well in humanistic disciplines). Credentialed experts could, if the Wikipedia community wanted to, be a useful judge of due weight for subjects in the humanities.

See also[edit]