Surveys Are Not Connective Knowledge


Originally posted on Half an Hour, April 1, 2010.

Responding to Steve Covello, who asserts "the collective opinion based on crowdsourced data collection means nothing more than a statistical point of interest... In a “data happy” world, we are inclined to reflexively respond to patterns and trends in information – the so-called emergence phenomenon mentioned by Stephen Downes and Connectivists in general – rather than the inherent validity of the basis for the data trends."

Gross mass-based phenomena such as yes-no votes are not emergent phenomena and are not what is meant by 'collective intelligence'.

That would be like attempting to analyze the meaning of a set of pixels by counting how many are 'off' versus 'on', instead of looking at the organization and recognizing in that a picture of Richard Nixon.

The fruit of collective intelligence, which I (and others) have described as an emergent phenomenon, results from the linkages and connections between individuals, and not a counting of properties (such as survey results) of those individuals.

This emergent knowledge is not intended to compete with, or replace, qualitative or quantitative knowledge. The assessment of whether Obama is a Muslim is not the subject of collective intelligence, no more than the assessment how many children he has would be based on what colour jacket he is wearing. Just as we should not confuse qualitative and quantitative data, we should not confuse wither of those with data describing connections and relations.

As to whether observation of emergent phenomena based on linkages or relations is based on "inherent validity", or "objective measure, evidence of intellectual virtue, rational thinking, or consideration of viable alternatives", depends on "reliability and validity of information", and demonstrates "smart, correct, educated, having wisdom, having valid experience in an area of knowledge or skill", such data - just like assessments of quality or quantity - are and ought to be subject to assessments of reliability, and not accepted as fact uncritically.

Just as nobody would accept a claim like "Obama is purple" or "Obama is really two people" uncritically, and without corroboration or verification, nor either should we uncritically accept statement like "Obama is a Muslim" or even "this arrangement of pixels depicts Richard Nixon" uncritically, without corroboration or verification.

The idea of emergent properties, or collective intelligence, or (as I would call it) connective knowledge, is not inherently opposed even to the strong realism assumed in the assessment above. It is not inconsistent to assert that "there are facts of the matter" and "these facts are expressed as connective knowledge".

The point of an assertion that there is  _is_ connective knowledge is to assert that "this domain of facts is not exhausted by observing qualities and counting entities or their properties; there is a distinct set of facts represented by the *connections* between these entities." This is a proposition, even when granting the naive sort of realism assumed above, that is difficult to refute, and is not refuted by assertions such as "a large quantity of people express the belief that Obama is Muslim."

If we wanted to learn about Obama's religion - which is not a simple observable or countable property - then we would not sample what people unconnected to him express as beliefs. That's like determining the colour of grass by counting pebbles on the beach. Rather, we would amass and collect the set of Obamas *connections* and *interactions* with other people and things, and determine whether this constitutes a set of patterns that more typically resembles a person we typically call a "Muslim".

Does Obama go to Muslim assemblies, such as Mosques, or does he typically assemble with and interact with Christians? Does he regularly consult Islamic texts, or would his readings be more typical of work read by Christians? Can connections in his thought be drawn to Islamic Law, or does an analysis of his texts demonstrate a stronger affinity with Christian thought? Do the utterances and texts of people connected to Obama describe him in terms typical of those describing Muslims, or do they tend to connect him to terms typical of those describing Christians?

Asserting that "Obama is a Muslim" based on a poll would be irresponsible, and no person advocating any form of collective intelligence or connective knowledge would assert otherwise.

But asserting that there is some simple observable property that verifies or confirms that "Obama is not a Muslim" is equally irresponsible. Naive realism does not refute connective knowledge when the reality being described is complex, when there is no simple observable or countable fact of the matter.

Connective knowledge, in other words, does not refute or overturn existing knowledge; rather, it offers us a *new* type of knowledge, that *cannot* be confirmed or refuted by simple observation of data; the employment of connective knowledge *is* to assess and evaluate such assertions *is* a demonstration of being "smart, correct, educated, having wisdom, having valid experience in an area of knowledge or skill".

Update: Steve Covello has responded with detailed commentary.

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