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In defence of expertise

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  • Thorsten Renk
    ... I find this wording dangerous (although I do not want to claim that David wants to imply the following, my impression is not): The reason is that I have
    Message 1 of 5 , Jan 17, 2011
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      Recently, David Salo posted on Elfling in response to a beginner:

      > I own this list, and I do not recognize any difference between 'experts'
      > and 'beginners'. If anybody on this list tries to scare or intimidate
      > someone else because they are a 'beginner',they will be answering to
      > me. So don't worry!

      I find this wording dangerous (although I do not want to claim that David
      wants to imply the following, my impression is not): The reason is that I
      have often in the internet come across what I'd call the 'postmodern'
      attitude, which states that everyone is equal - not only in an abstract
      sense as in basic human rights, but in the sense that every statement made
      by someone is equally valuable - thus if someone who has seen the LOTR
      movies has something to say about the Sindarin past tense, it is the same
      as when somebody having studied all the evidence available has something
      to say - just a different opinion.

      Needless to say, this postmodern attitude is very much at odds with the
      scholarly method (of which I am very fond). Postmodernism often goes hand
      in hand with a disdain for knowledge and expertise (after all, why work
      for knowledge if your opinion is equally valuable without it right now?)

      Postmodernists use precisly wordings like David did: 'everyone is equal
      here', 'there are no experts here' are key phrases which I have seen all
      too often.

      On the other hand, I am not in favour of formalizing expert status - the
      better argument counts in my view, regardless of who made it. Since
      speaking up for expertise against postmodernism is important for me, I
      wrote a response to Elfling. David did not approve the message for reasons
      I did not really understand. He proposes to disagree with me and proceeds
      to reproduce my own arguments, sometimes almost verbally, so I fail to see
      where he disagrees with me. He mostly argues against something I have
      explicitly made clear I am not advocating.

      I have asked David to reconsider his rejection, drawing attention to the
      fact that he seems to have misread my meassage, or to publish a clarifying
      statement of his own - so far he has not responded.

      Since I think the topic is important, I will publish my message here,
      along with David's response (which he gives "primarily in [his] capacity
      as list owner", so I think this is not a violation of privacy - I will
      however remove any text where he recounts private experiences) to put
      things into perspective.


      Lastly, I want to clarify that David's response is not the reason I
      unsubscribed from Elfling (I don't know if my goodbye message there will
      be published) - just thinking about the matter over the weekend made me
      realize that that's what I want to do.

      Best,

      * Thorsten

      My original (unedited) message:

      **********


      I wonder if David will permit me to comment on this.

      > I own this list, and I do not recognize any difference between 'experts'
      > and 'beginners'. If anybody on this list tries to scare orintimidate
      > someone else because they are a 'beginner', they will be answering to
      > me. So don't worry!

      For me, the idea about what an 'expert' is and does expressed in this
      paragraph is rather strange. Among the people which I would call experts
      in Elvish languages, I have never ever witnessed that someone tries to
      scare a beginner, or to dismiss a question 'because I am an expert and you
      are not', or to dismiss a theory or idea without explanation just because
      it is proposed by a beginner. Maybe someone else has?

      I see an expert as someone having expertise. With that definition, not
      recognizing that there is any difference between people who have expertise
      and people who have not seems a bit odd to me. In dealing with Elvish,
      there are 'facts', bits of evidence which are not up to a majority voting,
      intuition, or like and dislike. We cannot really argue if Tolkien wrote
      down _oiórie_ as the perfect tense of _yor-_ - he did so in PE17:43, and
      with regard to this bit of evidence, the members of Elfling fall into
      groups - those who know this, and those who don't, and the first group has
      more to say on that particular matter than the second - which is a
      defining property of expertise.

      Things are a bit more blurred when it comes to the interpretation of
      evidence, but even there are principles in science (which linguistics is,
      after all) which allow to tell the likelihood of an interpretation given
      the evidence. These principles can ultimately be argued based on
      probability calculus - while there is some subjective room, it's far from
      'anything goes' or 'every opinion is equally important'. Again, the
      likelihood of an interpretation given the evidence is not a question of
      majority vote, like or dislike - one can find out if one knows how to
      apply the principle.

      If 'The Elfling list exists to further the scholarly study of the
      languages invented by J.R.R. Tolkien' as its mission statement says, there
      is a commitment to these scientific (or scholarly) principles contained in
      here, so I don't feel out of order stressing these principles.

      What I have seen experts do repeatedly is to dismiss ideas based on
      evidence and scholarly principles. From my own memories as a beginner, I
      can testify that it is far from a pleasant experience if that happens to
      an idea I had been working on for two weeks. I can also say that I now see
      it as a necessary experience - it made me learn and understand. But as
      David once reminded me, such dismissals can come with kindness or can lack
      kindness, and they should come with kindness. I think he is quite right
      there - the same argument can be thrown in your face or can be kindly laid
      out for you to understand and learn, and it is far better to do the second.

      Interestingly enough, I have also noted that the more expertise I ascribe
      to someone, the more likely it is that that person admits in public that
      he was wrong about something when faced with a superior argument -
      regardless of who made the point. So - with regard to a particular point,
      the 'expert' role can be reversed - someone who has in general less
      expertise can turn out to have more expertise with regard to a particular
      question.

      I'm writing these comments, because I think that it is dangerous to not
      recognize expertise based on e.g. notions that 'everyone is equal' (which
      in my view means something different). In every forum or list where things
      revolve around exchanging knowledge, there are people having expertise
      already, and those who start out with more questions than answers. A forum
      can live indefinitely as long as expertise is around, even without people
      asking questions, but a forum dies if the experts leave - I have observed
      this pattern by now quite frequently. I would not want Elfling to take
      that path.

      So, to be quite clear - to formalize expert status and use it to dismiss
      other people's ideas without giving evidence has nothing to do with good
      scholarly practice. To value and recognize the expertise which is on this
      list, and also to value and recognize and credit the achievement of people
      behind that expertise, is good scholarly practice. I sort of hope that's
      what David meant to express as well.

      Best,

      * Thorsten


      **********

      David's rejection (private passages edited out):

      **********



      > I wonder if David will permit me to comment on this.

      Given that you start your message with an off-topic sentence, I guess that
      you knew the answer before you typed the period at its end.

      As you know, Elfling is for discussing Tolkien's languages.
      Administrative issues are to be raised with the list administrator. Given
      that (a) you seem above to be expressing doubts about your message's
      topicality and (b) you are talking about the position of the list
      administration with respect to 'experts', and not about Tolkien's
      languages, I have to deduce that you are addressing this message to me
      personally. I will therefore respond personally -- primarily in my
      capacity as list owner, though I have a few personal observations as well.

      > > I own this list, and I do not recognize any difference between
      > 'experts'
      > > and 'beginners'. If anybody on this list tries to scare or intimidate
      > > someone else because they are a 'beginner', they will be answering to
      > > me. So don't worry!
      > For me, the idea about what an 'expert' is and does expressed in this
      > paragraph is rather strange. Among the people which I would call experts
      > in Elvish languages, I have never ever witnessed that someone tries to
      > scare a beginner

      You may not see it (lately) on Elfling, because I (on the rare occasions
      they occur) try to put a stop to such things before they reach the list.
      As for other sites and venues, I can only suggest that your experience,
      and perhaps your ability to detect such instances of bullying by
      'experts', may be limited.

      'Experts' sometimes get away with atrocious behavior simply because those
      around them, their friends and hangers-on, being blinded by the shine of
      'authority' form close-knit, back-scratching groups whose function is to
      protect its members from responsibility for their actions, and to defend
      even the most outrageous instances of incivility, as long as an 'expert'
      is involved. This tends to distort expectations of what's normal -- some
      may think 'everyone else treats this behavior as normal, so I guess it
      must be okay when it comes from Expert X'. In other words, a double
      standard is applied which disguises the inadmissibility of the behavior.

      , or to dismiss a question 'because I am an expert and you
      > are not', or to dismiss a theory or idea without explanation just because
      > it is proposed by a beginner. Maybe someone else has?

      I have seen exactly that. [text recounting a private experience removed]

      Therefore I feel quite strongly about the importance of making 'beginners'
      feel welcome. I also expect that self-styled 'experts' and other elites
      can take care of themselves without any special help from me.

      > I see an expert as someone having expertise. With that definition, not
      > recognizing that there is any difference between people who have
      > expertise
      > and people who have not seems a bit odd to me.

      As long as I administrate this list, no favoritism will be shown towards
      the so-called 'experts'. Nor, I'm afraid, am I in any position to offer
      any 'recognition' -- I have no testimonials, no diplomas, no gold stars to
      stick by anyone's name, and certainly no time or inclination to make
      assessments of this or that person's 'expertise' *except* on the subject
      of which he or she is speaking at any given time.

      > In dealing with Elvish,
      > there are 'facts', bits of evidence which are not up to a majority
      > voting,
      > intuition, or like and dislike. We cannot really argue if Tolkien wrote
      > down _oiórie_ as the perfect tense of _yor-_ - he did so in PE17:43, and
      > with regard to this bit of evidence, the members of Elfling fall into
      > groups - those who know this, and those who don't, and the first group
      > has
      > more to say on that particular matter than the second - which is a
      > defining property of expertise.

      Your snark about 'majority voting', etc. is a red herring, as I think you
      know quite well. I do not accept that the members of Elfling 'fall into
      groups'. They may have different amounts of knowledge on this or that,
      like any person. But being knowledgeable about subject A does not imply
      being knowledgeable about subject B -- you can be knowledgeable about
      Quenya pronouns while being quite at sea with Sindarin plurals, and vice
      vers‰ -- and I've seen enough nonsense out of the mouths of 'experts' to
      know that one cannot anoint this or that person as a superior being. Even
      among 'experts' the levels of 'expertise' vary considerably, and there may
      well be some quiet members out there who are doing excellent work on their
      own -- and may in their own good time have some remarkable contributions
      to make -- who would never be recognized by any person or process as
      'experts' ahead of time. Statements of fact (or supposed fact) can,
      moreover, stand or fall on their own without slapping 'expert' labels on
      the people who offer them. I am personally as willing to accept
      correction from a 'beginner' as from an 'expert'.

      > Things are a bit more blurred when it comes to the interpretation of
      > evidence, but even there are principles in science (which linguistics is,
      > after all) which allow to tell the likelihood of an interpretation given
      > the evidence. These principles can ultimately be argued based on
      > probability calculus - while there is some subjective room, it's far from
      > 'anything goes' or 'every opinion is equally important'. Again, the
      > likelihood of an interpretation given the evidence is not a question of
      > majority vote, like or dislike - one can find out if one knows how to
      > apply the principle.

      I don't know where you get this majority vote, like or dislike stuff
      from. It certainly is neither explicit nor implicit in anything I said.
      What is implicit -- and what I will now make more explicit -- is that I
      will not allow the members of this list to be browbeaten, or discouraged
      from participating, by people who think they belong to a superior caste.
      And if anyone comes to Elfling for the sport of demonstrating their
      intellectual superiority and putting down those they feel are inferior,
      they will soon find out that such 'fun' is not to be had here.

      > If 'The Elfling list exists to further the scholarly study of the
      > languages invented by J.R.R. Tolkien' as its mission statement says,
      > there
      > is a commitment to these scientific (or scholarly) principles contained
      > in
      > here, so I don't feel out of order stressing these principles.

      As the person who wrote those words, I know exactly what I meant by them;
      and it was certainly not intended to privilege one group of members over
      another. In fact quite the opposite -- it's to stress that the discussion
      is about ideas, not people. 'Expertise' is too often a crutch for the
      lazy, who insist on having their claims accepted because of who they are
      (or who they claim to be), without being bothered to construct a coherent
      argument on their behalf.

      > What I have seen experts do repeatedly is to dismiss ideas based on
      > evidence and scholarly principles. From my own memories as a beginner, I
      > can testify that it is far from a pleasant experience if that happens to
      > an idea I had been working on for two weeks. I can also say that I now
      > see
      > it as a necessary experience - it made me learn and understand. But as
      > David once reminded me, such dismissals can come with kindness or can
      > lack
      > kindness, and they should come with kindness. I think he is quite right
      > there - the same argument can be thrown in your face or can be kindly
      > laid
      > out for you to understand and learn, and it is far better to do the
      > second.
      > Interestingly enough, I have also noted that the more expertise I
      > ascribe
      > to someone, the more likely it is that that person admits in public that
      > he was wrong about something when faced with a superior argument -
      > regardless of who made the point. So - with regard to a particular point,
      > the 'expert' role can be reversed - someone who has in general less
      > expertise can turn out to have more expertise with regard to a particular
      > question.
      > I'm writing these comments, because I think that it is dangerous to not
      > recognize expertise based on e.g. notions that 'everyone is equal' (which
      > in my view means something different). In every forum or list where
      > things
      > revolve around exchanging knowledge, there are people having expertise
      > already, and those who start out with more questions than answers. A
      > forum
      > can live indefinitely as long as expertise is around, even without people
      > asking questions, but a forum dies if the experts leave - I have observed
      > this pattern by now quite frequently. I would not want Elfling to take
      > that path.

      [private passage edited out - David remembers a forum being destroyed by
      'experts' abusing other members] That danger, it seems to me, is much
      more salient and present danger than any concern that 'the experts will
      leave'.

      > So, to be quite clear - to formalize expert status and use it to dismiss
      > other people's ideas without giving evidence has nothing to do with good
      > scholarly practice. To value and recognize the expertise which is on this
      > list, and also to value and recognize and credit the achievement of
      > people
      > behind that expertise, is good scholarly practice. I sort of hope that's
      > what David meant to express as well.

      No. That's not what I meant to express. I meant to express this:

      As administrator, I cannot and will not recognize two classes of members
      of Elfling, expert and non-expert. Everyone has to play by the same
      rules; nobody gets a little tin crown, certainly not from me.

      If an 'expert' wants to be 'valued' and 'recognized', he or she can do so
      by providing relevant information and making good arguments. And
      'non-expert' gets to make his or her own decision about the validity of
      those arguments (and the relevance of the information), and, if they wish,
      to challenge and try to refute those arguments. And I expect the
      'experts' to be able to engage in a full argument in every single case --
      not to say 'I'm an expert, how dare you argue with me?' -- exactly as if
      they were discussing matters with another 'expert'. In fact, the more
      'expert' a member thinks he or she is, the more I expect that person to
      behave in a manner that shows respect and indeed humility where other
      members are concerned.

      And from time to time even an 'expert' who is obliged to engage in such
      discussion may find that he or she has to rethink his or her own ideas.
      And that is the whole point of Elfling -- not to regurgitate the same
      'expertise' over and over again, but to allow varying ideas to meet and
      hopefully to produce new and better ideas from the discussion. And in my
      experience, the impetus for those ideas can come equally well from
      'expert' or 'beginner'. In which case there is no point whatsoever in
      making the distinction.
    • Carl F. Hostetter
      On Jan 17, 2011, at 4:11 AM, Thorsten Renk wrote: ... This quite perfectly describes the moderation of Elfling, its moderator, and his prominent colleagues, as
      Message 2 of 5 , Jan 17, 2011
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        On Jan 17, 2011, at 4:11 AM, Thorsten Renk wrote:

        David Salo writes:

        > 'Experts' sometimes get away with atrocious behavior simply because those
        > around them, their friends and hangers-on, being blinded by the shine of
        > 'authority' form close-knit, back-scratching groups whose function is to
        > protect its members from responsibility for their actions, and to defend
        > even the most outrageous instances of incivility, as long as an 'expert'
        > is involved. This tends to distort expectations of what's normal -- some
        > may think 'everyone else treats this behavior as normal, so I guess it
        > must be okay when it comes from Expert X'. In other words, a double
        > standard is applied which disguises the inadmissibility of the behavior.

        This quite perfectly describes the moderation of Elfling, its moderator, and his prominent colleagues, as any review of the actions of same quite amply attest. Isn't projection fascinating?

        Carl
      • pengolodh_dk
        ... Hi Thorsten, Unsurprisingly, your goodbye message was not allowed to pass (unless the moderator is still considering it - I would not hold my breath). As a
        Message 3 of 5 , Jan 18, 2011
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          >
          > Lastly, I want to clarify that David's response is not the reason I
          > unsubscribed from Elfling (I don't know if my goodbye message there will
          > be published) - just thinking about the matter over the weekend made me
          > realize that that's what I want to do.
          >
          > Best,
          >
          > * Thorsten

          Hi Thorsten,

          Unsurprisingly, your goodbye message was not allowed to pass (unless the moderator is still considering it - I would not hold my breath).

          As a person who holds an interest in the historical sociology of elven linguistics (or is just curious), I would like to know why you left Elfling. Could you post your goodbye message here instead? Maybe other Elflingers would benefit from it as well.

          I hope to see your interesting and illuminating posts on Tolkien linguistics in other forums in the future, or on your web site.

          I stay on Elfling mainly to answer posts that ask about the status of the publication of Tolkien's linguistic manuscripts, so some truthful information about this continuing project will reach Elfling.

          I doubt my (sparse) presence there will be tolerated much longer. But that is not up to me to decide...

          All the best,
          Peter
        • Thorsten Renk
          ... Hm, sadly the message has indeed not been posted. No doubt the official reason is that it s off topic - which is certainly not the real reasons, as plenty
          Message 4 of 5 , Jan 27, 2011
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            > Unsurprisingly, your goodbye message was not allowed to pass (unless the
            > moderator is still considering it - I would not hold my breath).
            >
            > As a person who holds an interest in the historical sociology of elven
            > linguistics (or is just curious), I would like to know why you left
            > Elfling. Could you post your goodbye message here instead? Maybe other
            > Elflingers would benefit from it as well.


            Hm, sadly the message has indeed not been posted. No doubt the official
            reason is that it's off topic - which is certainly not the real reasons,
            as plenty of off-topic messages do get posted. *sigh* Quite petty, really.

            So, the reason I left Elfling is that in recent years my family has grown,
            and I find myself with less and less spare time to pursue hobbies. At the
            same time, my interests are rather diverse, for example I have spent a lot
            of time last year to develop various techniques for 3-d rendering of
            clouds for an open source flight simulator (when I was younger, I was
            always disappointed in the quality of clouds in flight sims, so it's very
            exciting to be able to do it just as I want it to be...).

            I think that I now understand the outline of Tolkien's language invention
            and the flow of ideas. What's left is (at times rather tedious) work on
            the details, and I find it harder and harder to get myself into that kind
            of work. So I decided that for the mid-future I will pass on the torch - I
            plan to follow what will be going on, but I'll switch to a significantly
            less active role. That amounts to getting out of the (rather
            time-consuming) philosophy discussions on Elfling, discontinuing my work
            on grammar and rigorously declining to do any translations on request.

            The rest of my message was essentially thanks for good discussions, a
            (mostly) good working atmosphere and an apology for some past posts which
            I have come to realize were not appropriate.

            The bit with the good atmosphere is actually true (in case anyone is
            wondering) - I did enjoy the less scholary style of discussion in which
            ideas are simply tossed around, and I had many good inspirations and
            insights on Elfling. At the same time, I did not share the idea that
            banning half of the most knowledgeable Elvish scholars is a good idea, so
            I was also glad that there were other places to discuss.

            So, it's not primarily the Elfling moderation which prompted me to leave,
            but to a good degree it is the large amount of energy it costs to explain
            one's own position and ideas in the background of a conflict that has been
            going on even before I was ever interested in Elvish. I am passionate
            about non-scholarly aspects of Elvish as well - I just don't think
            confusing scholarly work and aesthetic invention is particularly smart, or
            that passing off one's own version of Elvish as the genuine Tolkien thing
            is honest - and I am just tired of explaining that the (subjective) 1000th
            time while carefully paying attention not to insult anyone who is
            dishonest in precisely that way (which was, I admit, often tempting).

            Best,

            * Thorsten
          • Rodrigo Jaroszewski
            You ll be missed. All the best for you and your family. And yes, those old clouds from way back were awful. :) Rodrigo Jaroszewski http://elfico.com.br ...
            Message 5 of 5 , Jan 27, 2011
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              You'll be missed. All the best for you and your family.

              And yes, those old clouds from way back were awful. :)


              Rodrigo Jaroszewski
              http://elfico.com.br


              On Thu, Jan 27, 2011 at 6:37 AM, Thorsten Renk <trenk@...> wrote:

              >
              > > Unsurprisingly, your goodbye message was not allowed to pass (unless the
              > > moderator is still considering it - I would not hold my breath).
              > >
              > > As a person who holds an interest in the historical sociology of elven
              > > linguistics (or is just curious), I would like to know why you left
              > > Elfling. Could you post your goodbye message here instead? Maybe other
              > > Elflingers would benefit from it as well.
              >
              >
              > Hm, sadly the message has indeed not been posted. No doubt the official
              > reason is that it's off topic - which is certainly not the real reasons,
              > as plenty of off-topic messages do get posted. *sigh* Quite petty, really.
              >
              > So, the reason I left Elfling is that in recent years my family has grown,
              > and I find myself with less and less spare time to pursue hobbies. At the
              > same time, my interests are rather diverse, for example I have spent a lot
              > of time last year to develop various techniques for 3-d rendering of
              > clouds for an open source flight simulator (when I was younger, I was
              > always disappointed in the quality of clouds in flight sims, so it's very
              > exciting to be able to do it just as I want it to be...).
              >
              > I think that I now understand the outline of Tolkien's language invention
              > and the flow of ideas. What's left is (at times rather tedious) work on
              > the details, and I find it harder and harder to get myself into that kind
              > of work. So I decided that for the mid-future I will pass on the torch - I
              > plan to follow what will be going on, but I'll switch to a significantly
              > less active role. That amounts to getting out of the (rather
              > time-consuming) philosophy discussions on Elfling, discontinuing my work
              > on grammar and rigorously declining to do any translations on request.
              >
              > The rest of my message was essentially thanks for good discussions, a
              > (mostly) good working atmosphere and an apology for some past posts which
              > I have come to realize were not appropriate.
              >
              > The bit with the good atmosphere is actually true (in case anyone is
              > wondering) - I did enjoy the less scholary style of discussion in which
              > ideas are simply tossed around, and I had many good inspirations and
              > insights on Elfling. At the same time, I did not share the idea that
              > banning half of the most knowledgeable Elvish scholars is a good idea, so
              > I was also glad that there were other places to discuss.
              >
              > So, it's not primarily the Elfling moderation which prompted me to leave,
              > but to a good degree it is the large amount of energy it costs to explain
              > one's own position and ideas in the background of a conflict that has been
              > going on even before I was ever interested in Elvish. I am passionate
              > about non-scholarly aspects of Elvish as well - I just don't think
              > confusing scholarly work and aesthetic invention is particularly smart, or
              > that passing off one's own version of Elvish as the genuine Tolkien thing
              > is honest - and I am just tired of explaining that the (subjective) 1000th
              > time while carefully paying attention not to insult anyone who is
              > dishonest in precisely that way (which was, I admit, often tempting).
              >
              > Best,
              >
              > * Thorsten
              >
              >
              > ------------------------------------
              >
              > Yahoo! Groups Links
              >
              >
              >
              >


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