Saturday, March 03, 2007

Credentialists and Impostors

The recent intrigue over Wikipedian Essjay's phony credentials has inspired Larry Sanger to reconsider Citizendium's registration policy:
". . . . We are very concerned about the credibility of the Citizendium as a reference work. . . . We simply do not want to wake up in five years, to find that someone has done a study of the Citizendium and demonstrated that in fact 25% of all of our contributors are using neither their real names nor pre-approved pseudonyms. In short, we've reluctantly concluded that the honor principle, even coupled with a willingness instantly to ban people like Essjay who are exposed for using false personas, really isn't due diligence."
Larry goes on to narrate the various methods that Citizendium hopes to use to validate the identities of people who wish to contribute to the project. To the unitiated observer, strong security measures like this probably seem to make sense. However, my experience has been that such security measures serve as an attractive nuisance for both impostors and credentialists, and I'm not sure which is worse.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that credentials are good and that impostors (in this context, someone who pretends to have credentials that he or she does not actually possess) are bad. However, the underlying issue is expertise, and credentials don't always translate to expertise. As such, when someone without expertise uses credentials to win a debate, this is arguably much worse than someone with expertise pretending to have credentials. The problem with both of these situations is that credentials, or lack thereof, become more important than expertise.

While I'm a big fan of expertise, I'm not a big fan of credentials, and I'm even less fond of credentialists, as my experience has been that someone who truly has expertise will seldom feel the need to fall back on his or her credentials and will generally feel contempt for those who make a habit of doing so. Indeed, those with true expertise are usually most conspicuous to me through their modesty and silence, and what concerns me most about Essjay's misguided actions on and off Wikipedia is that they have provided an opportunity for credentialists without expertise to stifle people without credentials who actually have expertise.

Prior to Jimbo Wales withdrawing his support for Essjay and asking him to resign from his positions of trust at Wikipedia, it was my sincere hope that Essjay would see the light and do this on his own. As it is now stands, Jimbo's statement has only partially resolved the situation. To wit, there are a number of Wikipedians who are urging Essjay's critics to back off, just as there are quite a few people who think that Essjay should still retain his privileges as a Wikipedia administrator. Personally, I would like to see Essjay make a fresh start at Wikipedia, and the only way that he can do that is if he resigns all privileges that he acquired under his false persona and creates a new account at Wikipedia under the protection of a new, anonymous pseudonym.

Correction: In the comments section of the above-cited Citizendium Blog post, Larry Sanger has pointed out my erroneous assertion that Citizendium's recent policy change was (1) inspired by the intrigue at Wikipedia and (2) made by him and him alone. I stand corrected. -- DFP,Jr.

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