A short history of knowledge, from feudalism to the Internet | Alice Dreger


Peer review is not a simple thing because
humans do it and so whenever there’s humans there will be bias introduced, relationships
get complicated with regard to peer review. We have a fantasy that peer review will be
totally anonymous on both ends – you won’t know who the person you’re reviewing is
and they won’t know who you are and it will all be blind. But in reality people figure out in peer review
who is who and biases do get introduced. But that said, the idea of peer review is
a really important one and we can sort of approach it and that’s the idea that we
have people who are qualified judging each other’s work. It allows us to essentially crowd source knowledge
and to have an opportunity where blind spots are picked off, where errors are picked up
and where we can make work better. So it’s essentially a way to crowd source
knowledge. I want to point out by the way that peer review
is historically really interesting. It came out of the enlightenment period. So this was the period when thinkers were
beginning to really appreciate the idea that humans together could know more. And what’s fascinating is that democracy
and science grew up together and they both use peer review. So science uses peer review because scientific
ideas are put forth and then scientists are qualified to do so, judge that work. And in democracy peer review is used in things
like voting systems so when we do voting that’s a peer review form. When we do judging of criminal or non-criminal
acts in courts that’s a form of peer review when we have a jury. And so it’s not a coincidence because what
was happening was the thinkers of the enlightenment were beginning to figure out that more people
looking at a problem could to get you better knowledge. Before the enlightenment the concept was knowledge
came from above, it came from the church, from the state, from God, it came from an
external higher authority. But the real revelation of the enlightenment
was the idea that people could do this themselves they didn’t have to rely on the church,
the state, God, an external authority, they could to do it themselves. And so they began to have the idea that they
would reject the king and they would essentially reject the teachings of the church and they
would reject the state being run by the king; that they would take back control of knowledge. And that was true in democracy and in science. So, it’s no coincidence that a lot of the
founding fathers were science geeks. They were thinking about crowdsourcing. It is what we call crowdsourcing. There are more checks and balances on bad
knowledge going forward so there’s accountability at some level. When you’re doing pier review the editor
at least knows who you are. When you’re doing voting theoretically you’re
not allowed to vote more than once. When you’re on a jury you have got a judge
keeping track of whether or not information should be admissible in court whether it’s
fair to admit it in court. The internet is crowdsourcing gone wild. It has no limits on it and so you can have
things like bots like things until it actually is noticed by real human beings, you can have
situations where something looks incredibly real but it’s not real and it will take
off much faster than we can stop it. So the internet really is a beautiful thing
in many ways. It allows people to find each other who never
could have found each other before, for example, people with very unusual medical conditions
can find each other, people with very unusual interests can find each other. The problem is that you have a situation where
there are no checks and balances and so you get a phenomenon whereby things that are not
real can go forward. But there are some places on the Internet
where there are checks and balances. So Wikipedia is a great example actually. Wikipedia actually has people who function
as editors and they will talk to each other, fight with each other and all the discussions
get externalized. That allows a level of accountability that
much of the Internet doesn’t have. It’s also the case that Wikipedia paid editors
can actually stop people from editing in some circumstances or stop people from messing
with pages. So there are places on the Internet that have
been born of crowdsourcing but that do have some checks and balances built in.

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