Saturday, March 05, 2011

Britannicans vs. Wikipedians

Attach a label to a political discussion and people immediately take the same, tired, positions that quickly devolve into heated discussions that more resemble “politics as entertainment” than an honest search for truth. If you really want to resolve some of these disputes, it seems to me that one way to start is by re-categorizing along a different axis.

Instead of dividing the world into Liberal and Conservative or Republican and Democrat, what if we divide everyone into Britannicans and Wikipedians?

Britannicans prefer expertise and experts. They are most comfortable when a well-respected authority is in charge. Wikipedians have less patience for authoritative answers, preferring an iterative approach that gradually converges on truth, rather than single, large revelations.

In most debates over policy or group actions, Britannicans have some big advantages, like decisiveness and accountability. Wikipedians are harder to pin down, and they tend to be more tentative or indecisive.

On the other hand, Britannicans suffer from the seen vs. unseen problem. They do better when a policy or decision has an obvious precedent, or it fits clearly into an existing category. They can be caught off guard in new or previously-unimagined situations. They hate Black Swans.

Wikipedians, though, thrive in the creative destruction that happens in new or uncertain situations. Even in more familiar contexts, they recognize that decisions have outcomes beyond the obvious, so they are skeptical when somebody appears to “have all the answers”.

Wikipedians see “benevolent dictatorship” as an oxymoron; Britannicans are more sympathetic, preferring to emphasize the “benevolent” part.

Wikipedians are often criticized for being ignorant or misinformed, especially by Britannicans, whom Wikipedians in turn accuse of arrogance or hubris.

Britannicans rely on “mainstream news” like the New York Times, CNN, or Fox; they have great respect for universities, especially those with “prestige”. Wikipedians use a diverse set of news sources, many of which are obscure or highly targeted to specific niches; sometimes they just rely on friends.

On health issues, Britannicans listen to their doctors; Wikipedians try everything, including alternative medicine, supplements, or home remedies. Britannicans might disagree about whether universal coverage is important, but in principal they respect the idea of a national health service, staffed by well-intentioned experts who decide the best medical treatments and policies, making reasonable and impartial tradeoffs between outcomes and costs. Wikipedians would be terrified of such a single arbiter of medical “truth”.

Britannicans like strong, well-funded public education. Wikipedians mistrust anything centralized, so you’ll see them favor a wide range of things, from volunteering in their local school, to supporting charters, to home-schooling.

Wikipedians are by nature skeptical of anything large, including the military, though they’ll have a wide range of opinions depending on what kinds of threats exist. Britannicans too have many opinions, but generally are more comfortable the larger the scope of influence; for example, they prefer a defense based on cross-national units like NATO or the United Nations.

You’ll find religious Britannicans as well as Wikipedians. The idea of a strong, all-knowing God comes naturally to Britannicans, so they also make good atheists if they reject religion. Non-believing Wikipedians are more agnostic; the believers gravitate toward decentralized groups.

The environment is important to everyone, but Britannicans are particularly attracted to Global Warming as an opportunity to impose sweeping international policies. Britannicans who deny global warming are the types who will spend hours pouncing on every fact trying to “prove” the other side is wrong. Wikipedians are more skeptical, either that the consequences are well-understood, or that much can be done. They may respond with personal lifestyle decisions, like buying organic or driving a Prius.

I’m deliberately trying to draw lines that cut through the traditional political divides; I know both die-hard Democrats and Republicans who would find themselves on the same side of this split.

As for me, I think I’m a Wikipedian because I tend to appreciate bottom-up solutions over top-down ones. I’m skeptical of experts (even when I am one myself!) and I enjoy understanding both sides.

How about you?


Wikipedia Logo Encylopaedia Britannica 1875 edition