Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Seth Godin on Wikipedia

Via Evangelical Outpost, I see these remarks from Seth Godin:
I heard from two people this week (one is 11, the other twice that) who were forbidden to use Wikipedia to do homework.

When I was in b-school, I admit that I discovered a shortcut. I had to write a long paper on Castro. I went to the magnificent Stanford library, found a great book on Castro, opened to the bibliography and found ten sources. Which I then laboriously paged through, spending hours and hours in order to find the facts I needed.

Then, facts in hand, I was able to do the actually useful part... I synthesized some new ideas and wrote a paper.

Apparently, going through the act of finding the books, sorting through them, reading a lot of chaff and eventually finding the facts is an essential skill for an 11-year-old kid. And for a college sophomore. Essential enough to be responsible for 80% of the time they spend on the work itself?

Selecting the facts is an important part of the process. Finding them shouldn't be.

I don't know about you, but when I hire someone, or go to the doctor or the architect or an engineer, I could care less about how good they are at memorizing or looking up facts. I want them to be great at synthesizing ideas, the faster and more insightfully, the better.
That's a false dichotomy. In fact, it's impossible to "synthesize ideas" until you've looked up and memorized a lot of facts. And that is one of the main objectives of formal education -- to give you a solid grounding in the facts about a particular subject. You also have to know how -- and when -- to investigate the facts more closely to see if there's something you've missed. There's no way to learn such skills if you're used to looking everything up in Wikipedia (whose coverage of pop culture can be amazingly comprehensive but whose articles on various academic topics can be remarkably amateur), or even anywhere online (many sources of information aren't readily available online yet).

A doctor, for example, is able to come up a useful "idea" (i.e., diagnosis or treatment plan) only because he spent many years memorizing lots of facts, looking at lots of case studies, and learning how to gather information from all sorts of sources (not just Wikipedia). Someone who just comes up with "ideas" without having had such a fact-intensive education -- which is what Godin seems to envision -- is a quack or a witch doctor, not a real doctor.
Until just recently, law students had to learn a painstaking process to look up cases by hand. No longer. The academy realized that teaching students to be great at Lexis was a smart idea.
Another bad example. Whether you read on paper or online, in both instances you're still reading caselaw. But you do have to be able to read caselaw and come up with your own synthesis of the information there. As to many legal problems, you can't just look up an equivalent of Wikipedia that will (supposedly) give you all of the pre-packaged "information" that you need to formulate your own grand "ideas." Instead, you have to be able to research all kinds of sources (federal cases, statutes, regulatory decisions, journal articles, etc.). Only once you've gathered and synthesized all the information does it make any sense to start coming up with "ideas" about alternative theories, policy rationales, and so forth. Just as with doctoring, uninformed legal "ideas" are a waste of time.



Blogger David Foster said...

"I don't know about you, but when I hire someone, or go to the doctor or the architect or an engineer, I could care less about how good they are at memorizing or looking up facts"...a false dichotomy, as you say. See my post Thinking and Memorizing for more on this.

10:01 AM  

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