How Important is Consensus?

In 1973, I was a high school senior filling my schedule with easy classes. The cult I was in had been teaching me public speaking since I was 12, so I took a public speaking class to get an easy A.

My final speech, for my final grade, was about why evolution was wrong and how you could describe the age of the earth with just a handful of zeros. I got an A, so I was obviously being graded on style, not content.

Two years later I had escaped the cult and was reading, really studying, everything I could get my hands on, to deprogram myself. One of the subjects I studied was evolution, and I rather quickly came to the conclusion that everything I knew on the subject was wrong. As I learned dozens of facts, then hundreds of facts, every one of them supporting evolution, I realized just how silly my beliefs had been.

I didn’t change my mind because of the consensus on evolution. That consensus had been there long before I’d been brainwashed. No, it was the facts that convinced me. Hundreds and hundreds of facts that, when put together, proved beyond any doubt that evolution happened, that it was real. It was cool that the consensus agreed with my conclusion, but it wasn’t the reason I changed my beliefs.

I didn’t need consensus to believe Newton’s laws of motion either, became I had experienced them directly. I live in the northeastern US and more than once, as I tried to stop my car on a sheet of ice, I’ve thought “The inertia of this body in motion is about to be acted on by the outside force of that rapidly approaching tree.”

I’d experienced Newton’s third law by building model rockets. Occasionally something went wrong and a rocket would spin out of control. It would inevitably land on Mr. Sebuski’s lawn, where it would spin around and explode, creating lots of noise and smoke. Mr. Sebuski always responded by running into his yard, exploding in anger and screaming threats that were little more than noise and smoke, proving that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

I’m seeing more and more insistence, on skeptic blogs and forums, that we must accept the consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) because . . . it’s the consensus. And when subjects are complicated we should acquiesce to the experts. But the consensus, and the experts can be wrong. Sometimes, completely wrong.

The consensus on second hand smoke is that the homeopathic levels of toxins it contains make it so deadly we must protect everyone from it. Smartenized people know that’s complete bullshit.

But what about the experts? James Repace makes a nice living concocting reports about SHS for various nanny organizations. He claims that removing SHS from a room requires winds of hundreds of miles an hour, and he has a PhD in physics. I don’t. Does that make me unqualified to call bullshit on his ridiculous claims?

I don’t have a degree in medicine either. Plenty of MDs are anti-vax and pro-homeopathy. Should I stop criticizing them because I’m not enough of an expert?

Here’s the most important reason to avoid relying on consensus and experts when researching scientific claims: It takes all the fun out of being a skeptic.

Last week I heard a medical claim from a source that’s usually pretty reliable, but also occasionally falls for woo. I don’t know if it’s true or not. When I get around to it, I’ll research it myself. I’ll read reports and articles and track down facts and figure out if it’s true, false, or undetermined at the moment. That’s the fun part of being a skeptic – learning and discovering and filtering and figuring out what’s real and what’s nonsense. If you’re going to automatically accept the word of an expert or the current consensus, are you really a skeptic? And even if you are, where’s the fun in it?

A consensus can, and usually should, be factored into you conclusions. If the consensus agrees with your conclusions, great, that’s an indicator you’re probably right. If there’s a strong consensus against your conclusions you better have done some pretty solid research and reasoning to be sure they’re valid. But if you’ve done that research and come to your conclusions carefully and thoughtfully, don’t let someone tell you you’re wrong because of some consensus. Instead, demand facts, because ultimately it’s facts, not consensus, that separates reality from nonsense.

This post is also available as a Quick Hitts Podcast. The podcast version is a bit longer, and includes a discussion of conspiracy theories about consensuses.

2 Comment(s)

  1. I have but one complaint about this post. Doctors that are anti-vax and/or support homeopathy are not the consensus among medical doctors. Comparing medical doctors who are anti-vaxx/homeopathic to scientist who support AGW is not a fair comparison. The former is not a consenus, it is the minority opinion. The latter is not.

    I’d also like to say that yes, just because someone managed to sneak into an Ph.D. program and occupy a chair for some years doesn’t mean we should take their word as law. But, when you are a non-expert taking on complicated subjects, you run the risk of making mistakes in logic that maybe a freshmen in the topic might make, except you have no professor to point that out. Suzanne Summers thinks she knows more about the body than most doctors because she’s read a dozen books or so.

    I personally think that trying to form an opinion on the data present is stupid. There’s not enough, and it’s shaky at best. We can’t predict the weather accurately more than a few days out, so why are we trying to do it fifty years out? I also think the AGW debate is worthless. Not the GW part, the A part. Why is it so important that we find out who is the blame for the weather? Whether humans are to blame or not, isn’t it more important to figure what we need to do and/or prepare for? Justice is important, but survival is more important.

    Martin Smith | Apr 16, 2010 | Reply

  2. Sounds like you may have been raised in the same cult that I was. I gave one of the most embarrassing public speeches in my life because of that cult–and that was in college. It took me a little longer than you to learn critical thinking skills. My modus operandi has become to never reach a conclusion on a subject until I’ve devoted enough attention to it to understand the basic facts. And since I can only devote my attention to so many topics at once, there are just some subjects that I currently do not hold an opinion on.

    Palaverer | May 17, 2010 | Reply

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