Commentary after commentary tries to browbeat opponents with the ‘scientific consensus’ of some point. As if the collective opinions of some group convey not just a stamp of approval on an issue but anoint their position with the certitude of absolute truth. Would that it were so. Scientific consensus has become the pronouncement of sophisticated lynch mobs who, unable to prove a position, resort to derision of opposing positions with a pronouncement of collective wisdom.
The problem is that, quite often, the consensus is wrong. Sometimes ruinous, deadly wrong. Remember Richard Jewel? The Atlanta bomber -- only he wasn’t. Duke lacrosse? Those nasty college rapists -- only they weren’t. How about the flat earth believers? No, not the iconoclastic society that states its beliefs tongue-in-cheek; the real flat earthers of the Renaissance period. THE thinkers who began the Modern age, leaving behind the supposed ignorance of the Dark and Middle Ages. Those Renaissance thinkers were sure that the earth was flat, that if one traveled to the edge, they would fall into an abyss. No less certain, the sun and stars revolved around earth as the center of the universe. It is said that the court of Spain had those who were sure that Columbus would sail off of the earth and never return. The Catholic Church is purported to have condemned Galileo in 1632 for his heretical notion that the earth was a round globe hurtling through space about the sun. Throughout history, the Intelligentsia has relied upon consensus to impose its assumption as the only rational belief.
The philosopher, Descartes, observed, "There is nothing", he said, "so evident or so certain that it may not be controverted. Whence then this widespread and deep-rooted anarchy? From the fact that our inquiries are haphazard." There is no question on which men agree. "[T]here is hardly a statement made by one man, of which the opposite is not loudly supported by some other?" So, disagreement is not new.
Consensus does not mean an absolute truth. Most often, it merely signifies which group is more prominent, at the moment. Later knowledge sometimes justifies the disbeliever over the body in power. Pasteur and Lister, with their beliefs in germ theory, have surpassed their critics who believed in evil humors and the need for blood letting. We do not praise the priests who inflicted torture with the Inquisition, we cringe at their cruelty. At the time, they were the powerful. The pain inflicted was with certitude of convictions driven by consensus.
The truth lies in Descartes’ observation “that our inquiries are haphazard.” It has been said that we can never know the truth because our observations will always be biased by our preconceptions. That is the problem with many group opinions. Consensus is not the product of divergent thought. Rather, like teenagers seeking to emulate their idol, a small nexus have a thought and the group follows, like lemmings. When that nexus has a private agenda, it can lead the group over a cliff, as was recently seen with the ‘global warming hoax.’
While a consensus opinion should not be rejected out-of-hand, it should be remembered that consensus is not an imprimatur of absolute truth. When consensus is used to foreclose differences of opinion, it is bullying -- particularly when consensus is based upon haphazard inquiries to further a private agenda. Consensus is not an adequate substitute for rigorous investigation and validation through scientific proof, rather than scientific opinion. Remember to keep an open mind and accept the possibility that consensus may be right but it can also be very, very wrong.