Oct 07 2011

Against “Consensus”

Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions that differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.
Albert Einstein

You hear the word Consensus a lot these days. It’s used over and over all over the web as a means to try and end discussion on any number of topics, and to give the person using the word a sense of “superiority” for “defending consensus.” It’s been used to justify Wikipedia editing wars, with “Defenders of Consensus” preventing “Crackpot Loons” from modifying articles with information on nearly any topic that “Consensus” says is “wrong.” It’s justified over and over with such defenses as: “Well, a majority can’t be wrong!” or “Most scientists agree” or “Consensus is a vital tool of science!”….

The problem is that history shows repeatedly that Consensus is meaningless in science. Ptolemaic “epicycles” were “consensus” for centuries, but two scientists, both labeled “Crackpot” by their peers, proved “consensus” wrong. Copernicus had a play written about him called “Morosophus” or the “Foolish Sage.” Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and forced to “recant” as a heretic. Both were brilliant men, but they dared to “go against Consensus” and were mocked and ridiculed for it. But despite this, they still proved “Consensus” wrong.  Louis Pasteur also faced such mockery, with his “germ theory” when “Consensus” believed in “spontaneous generation”, yet every child today is taught the germ theory of disease, and not that rancid meat turns into maggots. Antonj Van Leeunhoek faced it for his “little beasties” until his microscope proved their existence beyond a doubt. Even Albert Einstein faced such opposition in his early years before his theories became “accepted fact” (despite still being a “theory”)

I could probably make a book listing the examples in history of the “giants” of modern science and how each of them had to “go against consensus” in order to get their theories examined, and the battles that were fought before the evidence was accepted, but that’s not really my point. It’s that historically, “Consensus” has never been a “help” to science, but is instead a “hindrance.”

Why? Because science is about asking questions, while consensus is about demanding that you not question. It’s a blind appeal to “authority” in order to silence questions, a blunt force demand that you cease thinking and accept the status quo. It has nothing to do with “science” and everything to do with enforcing the “will of the herd.” It is a demand that you “BELIEVE!!!!!!!” instead of an appeal to logic and evidence.

Yet everywhere you go online, regardless of the branch of science under discussion, you will be exhorted to “accept Consensus” as incontrovertible fact, regardless of evidence for or against. If you just so happen to be in possession of evidence of any sort that disagrees with “consensus,” it’s not even possible to have a rational conversation and discuss said evidence. It is automatically dismissed as “crackpottery” or “craziness” or “idiocy,” and for having dared to examine it you might find yourself called a “denier,” “insane,” or “superstitious.” In almost every case, you will find staunch refusal to examine said evidence or even worse, a statement like “Well I checked Google and consensus says such and such, so you are (insert insult here).”

I’ve often asked people why they have such a hard time discussing differing opinions without resorting to juvenile name calling; why two rational people can’t rationally discuss differing conclusions based on examination of differing evidence without there usually being one who will question the sanity of the other for daring to have a different opinion. I’ve yet to get a good answer.

Why is this? Well, recent research has revealed that people don’t actually act rationally as a general rule. No matter what they might like to think, when faced with a “challenge” to a deeply held belief, the normal instinct is rejection. What that belief is tends to be pretty meaningless, but when faced with evidence that their beliefs are not as “true” as they believe they are, sticking your hands over your ears and going “lalalalalalala” is an automatic first response. It’s instinctive to reject the possibility that you might be wrong, and it makes no difference if you are discussing a religious belief, a political one, or a scientific one. The “appeal to consensus” is thus “I agree with these people, and so do a lot of others, so that must mean I am right and this evidence being presented is thus wrong.”

You might have heard of a recent story about neutrinos traveling faster than light? The OPERA project is one of the most precise experiments of its kind, with numerous scientists checking and double checking all the data and equipment for accuracy. We’re talking as close to fementometers as they can get levels of precision. And before releasing the report, they exhausted every single other possible cause before asking the world community “prove us wrong!” They want to be proven wrong because their experiment “goes against Consensus” that states that nothing can travel faster than light. They don’t want their evidence to be right because it means that consensus is wrong. They released their findings with a plea to the science community to find “where they went wrong;” rather than saying “this evidence indicates the possibility that the reigning theory may not be complete” despite the fact that even Einstein himself was unsatisfied with his theories and considered them incomplete.

And what was the immediate result? Well on “Next Big Future” where I read the article first, the replies were filled with “they must have been stupid” responses… you know, the kind where the competence of the scientists in question is challenged rather than the results. These are CERN researchers. I have every confidence in their competency, and doubt that such basic errors as “they measured wrong” or “they didn’t take into account the curve of the earth”, or “they didn’t account for vibration” were responsible for their readings. Even Fermilab stated that it would take a “year or two” to upgrade their instruments to the sensitivity of the CERN ones and re-run the experiment, which indicates that the OPERA team had the best, most precise, most accurate instruments available. But rather than examine this data, it was nearly universally dismissed as “wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong!!” because “Consensus” said it had to be wrong. (one exception I’ve found is here.

This is not science. It is, indeed, the furthest thing from science imaginable.

It is however, a pattern seen commonly in another universal human institution —Religion. “Consensus says” is no different than “God says” in its basic semantics. It’s an appeal to “higher authority” to make an argument seem to not just have a weight of evidence on one’s side, but “moral force” — in essence making anyone who “questions the faith” a heretic who deserves nothing but ridicule and derision and hatred lest he “poison the minds” of the faithful with things like evidence and lead them “astray” from the “one true path.” Indeed, in a recent “discussion” I was told this flat out: “Because you are a blogger/writer and your words have impact, You can potentially skew the opinions of thousands of people (millions if you somehow became a famous figure) and make life very difficult for those of us who are actually trying to be constructive about climate change.”

The “variation” of my views on climate change from consensus is probably less than a few percent. The chief difference is that after nearly 20 years of reading evidence from all sides in the “debate,” I have failed to reach the conclusion that “man” is the single *sole* cause of climate change as there is sufficient evidence that said changes were occurring prior to the “Industrial Revolution” to conclude it is a natural event made significantly worse by mankind and initially caused by mechanisms other than “carbon pollution”. But because “consensus” says that man alone is responsible, I was branded a heretic. I had to be “corrected” lest I spread a dissenting opinion to consensus, however slight.

It’s not my job to “make life easy” by not asking questions or doing my own research and reaching my own conclusions. As a rational human being, it’s my duty to ask questions, find answers, and if those answers later prove incorrect, or flawed, it’s my duty to reject them and find new answers. I have always gone where the evidence leads, not where consensus demands I follow. As a believer in “Science” I cannot “accept things on faith” because a “higher authority” tells me too. And that includes even “Consensus.” I freely admit that I might reach a wrong conclusion, but if I do so based on evidence, and if I have to change my conclusions when different evidence is discovered, such is life in a universe we are still learning to understand.

But please, don’t simply take my word for it. Because as a rational human being, it’s up to you to do your own research and seek your own conclusions. If you simply accept my opinion, then you are simply joining another “consensus.” If you refuse to simply blindly accept “consensus says” as a reason, but demand evidence, study said  evidence, and draw your own conclusions from said evidence, then like Isaac Newton, you can say “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Even Albert agrees:
He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.
Albert Einstein