Notions of Notability

Lovers of the process of conflict resolution should pay attention to Wikipedia. In particular, try to find an entry ensnared in some debate over its legitimacy. An argument about what constitutes the notable will likely ensue. Philosophically, this is an interesting question. (Actually co-blogger Steve and I have discussed it, but not on this blog.)

In a sea of internet-based information, how does one judge or learn (or teach) how to judge what is worth paying attention to or what is notable? This is a very tough question. There are myriad signals one can use to inform one’s basis for relevance and importance. Among them are association with or endorsement by institutions or individuals of prominence and credibility.

That’s essentially attribute substitution at work. (Steve and I have a paper centered on the behavioral economics version of that concept.) But what is a “prominent” and “credible” institution or individual? And what constitutes “endorsement”? On the first question, we each have our own list. Many people count Fox News among the “prominent” and “credible.” Others reject it as such.

So we’re clearly interpreting the source of signals differently. And we can’t judge the information based on the signals of its source until we judge the source itself. Where does that judgment come from? That’s a thorny question I’ll side step at the moment. I’ll just note that we obviously cannot discount our heritage, upbringing, communities, and self-interest in addressing it.

Suppose we just assert that we have some sensible way of arriving at a list of prominent, credible institutions and people. We then, more or less, trust in some fashion (but verify when warranted, whatever that means) what those institutions and individuals say and endorse. The real question at the heart of a current debate on Wikipedia I’m observing is, what constitutes endorsement? In what fashion must an individual or institution of prominence and credibility mention something in order for that that something to be deemed “notable”?

To some, that something must itself be the explicit subject of discussion in order to confer notability. It isn’t sufficient that the thing be merely used (e.g. cited or quoted), it must itself be described and discussed by the prominent and credible source. That’s a perfectly reasonable definition of notability. But it does mean that one’s work can amass a great volume of references and be put to tremendous use without it becoming notable. It isn’t notable until someone or some institution of import says, “You know that thing we use/cite/quote a lot? Now I’m going to finally explicitly tell you how useful and good it is. …”

Alternatively, under the definition of notability just described, a thing can be notable without ever being put to use. In practice I think this is rare. Hence, the notable are nearly always useful, but the useful not always notable. That narrows the domain of Wikipedia-worthy entries, which is no doubt viewed by many as one of the attractive features of the foregoing notion of notability.

In my own life, I certainly rely on that definition of notability. There are a great many things to which I would not give a moment’s notice were it not for the explicit endorsement by an individual or institution I trust. Should I pay attention to the work of Dr. XYZ? If several colleagues I trust tell me she’s written a superb paper I will go read that paper and be predisposed to view it favorably. On the other hand, I notice when the same individual is quoted or cited a lot by others I trust. In time, I begin to trust that quoted/cited individual even if she is not or her work is not explicitly described and endorsed.

Thus, for me notability is attained in two ways. One way, the explicit endorsement, is the quickest route. One good word from a trusted source and the transfer of legitimacy has begun (though it is not inevitable or irreversible). The other way, an accretion of references, is slower. But it is also more robust if they come from a variety of sources. A dense web of citations and uses is compelling in a way that is hard to undo. Of course, coming to my own favorable opinion based on direct experience confers the most lasting impression. But is it not confounded with both my predisposition of favorability (ex ante attribute substitution) and my tendency to overvalue my own opinion which motivates the subconscious search for reinforcement (ex post confirmation bias)?

From beginning to end the process of determining the worth of a thing is infused with subjectivity and bias. In some domains science can guide thinking and clear away a substantial amount of likely hokum. But that only gets you so far. Thus, for Wikipedia, an objective definition of notability is critical. Yet for participants in Wikipedia debates on the matter there can be very little objective about it.

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