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Putting the author back in authority

By David Weinberger

A friend of mine died of breast cancer a few months ago. Or, perhaps I should say that she died of the herbal remedies that were ineffective where traditional medicine might have worked. Or perhaps I should say that she died of bad information. Or perhaps of optimism. All played a part, and nothing may have availed her. Nevertheless, I read with sympathy the notice up on the discussion page of the Australian government's I-Source National Breast Cancer Centre, NBCC :

“The bulletin board has been removed from the Web Page this month following careful consideration concerning the role of that forum in relation to the overall purpose of the National Breast Cancer Centre. The Centre aims to provide information that is evidence-based, and it has become apparent that much of the information posted to the bulletin board was non-evidence-based, with many postings actually contradicting evidence-based information displayed by the Centre throughout the site. This is confusing to readers, and gives the impression that the Centre is supporting views and information that it does not in fact endorse.”

This is perfectly consistent with the NBCC's values. I know this because the first item on its "organizational values" list is: “Evidence-based: All aspects of the Centre's work are based on the best available evidence.”

NBCC isn't alone in this dilemma. On the one hand, the NBCC feels a deep responsibility to promulgate information it believes is accurate. On the other hand, it wants to enable its community of users to engage in open conversation. When those two hands conflict, the responsible, adult, authoritative hand wins.

But at a cost. Shutting down a board because there's bad information on it can be like shutting down a red light district: The "undesirables" tend just to move elsewhere. Another possibility might have been to keep the board open while encouraging more participation by NBCC members, countering the misinformation being posted by well-meaning (and perhaps some not so well-meaning) amateurs. After all, the conversations are happening somewhere—far better for the NBCC to know about them. Of course, this would require a serious commitment of time from NBCC members.

There is obviously, however, something more going on here. The NBCC is trying to play a particular role that not everyone in its "market" accepts, apparently. The NBCC is presenting itself as an arbiter of knowledge. It gets to play that role because of its commitment to "evidence." But, of course, the people making trouble on the NBCC discussion board don't believe what the NBCC says. Perhaps they dispute the evidence. Perhaps they think the NBCC is in the pocket of pharmaceuticals. Perhaps they have a beef with reasoning from evidence itself. There is a politics of knowledge at work here, even if there isn't a politics of authority: There is a struggle over knowledge that can be a matter of life and death.

I have no issues at all with the NBCC or any other group refusing to permit the promulgation of information on its site that the group considers wrong and harmful. I would prefer if the NBCC found a way to permit interaction with users, perhaps through a moderated forum, but that's just free marketing advice. The important thing is to draw the right lessons from this situation:

First, all knowledge is political. Often it's used as a political weapon to hold back the careers of those who threaten us, but even in its more benign uses, the connection between knowledge and power is inevitable. Knowledge gives us power over our world, if not over one another, so the struggle for who is right always has an element of power in it. In fact "being right" is one of the most heavily freighted and pernicious phrases in our vocabulary.

Second, the fact that a group like the NBCC banishes contradictions from its site doesn't mean that groups that aren't like the NBCC should. That is especially true for internal sites. An open play of ideas on an intranet will surface good ideas and expose weak spots, and over-control will kill not only the play of ideas but morale as well. After all, the knowledge that moves a business forward usually isn't deduced from evidence. Rather, it uses evidence to support decisions already made in non-evidentiary hearts. A company that is without internal contradiction has probably just frightened the contradictions into silence.

Third, the role of the NBCC is precisely to be a spokesperson for an evidence-based view of the truth (where the NBCC gets to define what counts as evidence, of course). That is only sometimes the role of a business. For example, if you have a technical support site, your company has a special authority when it comes to talking about your products. But even there, your customers are likely to have ideas you haven't thought of and are likely to be using your products in ways that you don't approve of but that are very helpful to your users. The times when a company can and should set itself up as the sole fount of Truth, Facts and Certitude are rare indeed.In short, unless you're dealing with something as important and as scientific as the treatment of breast cancer, you're probably better off assuming that you're not the world's leading authority.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (www.hyperorg.com), e-mail self@evident.com

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