How do we know what we know?

While drinking a cup of cappuccino in a very nice coffee shop recently, I overheard two students discussing research methods for their essays. Both of them believed that they had correctly identified the solution to a particular scientific – I think biomedical – problem, but neither was sure on what evidence they could base it. So one of them pulled out his mobile phone and tweeted the question. Within two minutes they apparently had received 38 responses, with 21 of these suggesting one particular source, 8 another, and the remaining 9 (according to one of the students) ‘just spouting rubbish’. So the 21 were deemed to have the winning formula, and I believe that this is what both submitted in their essays.

It was, I suppose, a form of crowdsourcing. And of course this doesn’t just get used as a research tool for students. Last week we read that online crowdsourcing was used to identify the likely flight direction of the missing Malaysian flight MH370. Or how about Californian Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who is using Twitter to help him draft legislation which he would like to see enacted? Others again have taken to crowdsourcing to predict stock market movements. A cancer research charity is using crowdsourcing to analyse medical data.

For those still struggling with the validity or otherwise of using Wikipedia as a research tool, the ever more informal and broad ranging methods of research made possible by the internet must seem a major challenge. In part this is because, increasingly, we are processing information supplied by large numbers of people about whose credentials we know, and seek to know, nothing at all; and yet we may trust what they advise us. This raises completely new notions about the validation of information and data.

In the past, when I was first doing research, our task was to acquire knowledge and based on that knowledge carry out analysis, each step of which we could document and justify. If those were our intellectual tools, how shall we respond to a new age in which we throw questions into cyberspace and wait for an answer, whose validity we cannot document beyond the volume of the response? Do we need to review the whole idea of what constitutes knowledge?

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4 Comments on “How do we know what we know?”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    Knowledge is Groupthink. Ignorance is Strength.


  2. What I find particularly interesting here is that I’ve had this notion bugging me for quite some time that thinking has been needing to ‘upgrade’ and do so by sourcing a greater range of premises than deduction.
    This, of course, brings up the question here; verifiability. Crowdsourcing may be what I was approaching in my muddled way.
    I don’t know if I am happy with this result, though.


  3. PS I just have to Share this. It is such a fascinating piece, and so well written.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    Last week I attended ‘What I Know is” A Research Symposium on Online Collaborative Knowledge Building, see https://wikimedia.org.uk/wiki/What_I_Know_Is
    (also the Storify story is available at http://tinyurl.com/ptnyymn). The core concept, as expressed in the Wikimedia page above (Wikimedia is https://wikimedia.org.uk/wiki/About_us ) can be summed up as: “Wikipedia and other online sites [work] not only as pedagogical tools, but also as platforms where knowledge is built, shared and transformed; sites and objects for analysis, critical engagement, as well as philosophical debate.”
    The word revolution is often used in this case and yet it might be worth noting that although the term crowdsourcing is relatively new (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html), sharing knowledge is by no means a novelty, enthusiastic amateurism is not a recent phenomenon, what is incredible is the scale of what is now possible to share, to the point that the same idea of what constitutes valuable knowledge is under review. Once closely guarded in books (for a fortuitous coincidence the topic of the previous post) on the principle that “scientia potentia est” knowledge is now something that can be given away, while simultaneously enhancing one’s own your reputation. This kind of thinking underpins, among others, the Khan’s Academy or the open source movement, which has given the world free software such as Linux.
    The example of crowdsourcing described in the post is a rather vernacular one, the best use of crowdsourcing has less to with “the more the better” logic and more with exercising a true critical appraisal of the data gathered via the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. Needless to say there is a dark side to such practices that has nothing to do with an “age of generosity” (often mentioned in the most optimistic scenarios) and more to do with labor exploitation. As far as universities are concerned, understanding a phenomenon like the one described above in all its complex implications, is paramount , the risk otherwise is to end up “outsourced”.


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