Taylor: Pooled ignorance does not add up to wisdom

Dante’s Inferno defined nine circles of hell, each appropriate for different kinds of sin. I have my own definition of hell—editing by committee.

You know how it works. A whole group reads a draft and wonders what to do with it.

Then one member ventures an opinion: A certain sentence should use “different than” rather than “different from.”

Now the floodgates open. Everyone has a pet phrase that they feel impelled to insert, challenge, or delete. They resurrect grammar no-no’s from Grade 8.

Someone objects to the recommendations—additional alternatives should be included. No, says someone else, they can’t be alternatives, because “alternative” implies only two possibilities. With more than two, they must be called options. Or choices.

Would a discreetly worded disclaimer reduce legal liability?

And shouldn’t the bullet list be numbered?

I guarantee that the result of editing by committee will be verbose, ponderous and incomprehensible—even if every single amendment were linguistically correct. (I’m being charitable in suggesting that possibility; almost inevitably, some “improvements” will be just plain wrong.)

Committee members are entitled to their opinions, of course. But a collection of inputs needs to be filtered through a single competent mind to produce a readable document.

I can think of only one significant exception to this rule—the King James Version of the Bible, created by a committee of 74 independent scholars in 1611. But even there, they borrowed two-thirds of their text from a previous translation done by one writer, William Tyndale.

For his heretical efforts, Tyndale had been executed by strangulation. Then his dead body was burned at the stake.

Unfortunately, editing by committee has gained popularity in the digital age of social media. Anyone can now contribute their knowledge—or their ignorance—to any subject.

It’s called “crowd-sourcing.”

James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few, popularized the concept. Its philosophy is the more, the merrier. And the more creative.

Yes, there are times when crowd-sourcing seems to work. Wikipedia is an example. Random sampling of its contents apparently proves it fractionally more accurate than even the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica.

Still, there are times when its entries seem to reflect the obsessions of a few fanatic individuals.

But now Collins has thrown open its dictionary to anyone with an Internet connection—in other words, anyone.

Which means, for example, that someone can insist that flout and flaunt are the same thing. Or career and careen. And is it you’re, your, or yore? There, they’re, or their?

You’re not sure what the difference is? Look ’em up.

Oh, sorry, you can’t. Well, yes, you can, but can you trust a collective wisdom that includes ignorance?

As Jonathan Green asked, in Britain’s Guardian: “If it is not intensively researched, edited, proofed and rendered as ‘true’ as possible, why bother to consult it? If a reference [text] is to remain useful, it cannot become amateur hour.”

There is a place for wisdom, for knowledge, for expertise. Pooled ignorance—as politics keeps proving—does not add up to wisdom.

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