Thursday, July 14, 2005


An interesting discussion among Jim West, Jim Davila, and Michael Pahl on the meaning of "consensus," summarized here by Michael.

I would only add that there seem to be at least two kinds of consensus. One we might call a hard consensus, wherein the facts of the matter are so well-known to specialists or professionals that there is no serious doubt among them.

Another kind is the "soft" consensus, which is the result of a kind of scholarly flocking behavior. One view becomes fashionable, or famous, or is espoused by a particularly influential scholar, or just gets repeated a lot and everyone starts jumping on the bandwagon. Although a vote would reveal a "consensus," there is in fact a lot of room for opposition and contradiction, and little hard core of indisputable fact.

This presents a problem for outsiders: How can you tell if a particular consensus of specialists is hard or soft? I think the debate about global warming is an example of this kind of problem. As an outsider, I've become convinced that there is a hard consensus among scientists about global warming, although many politicians still want to portray it as soft, with room for reasonable doubt.

I take it that the question of the dating of the gospels, about which the question of consensus originally arose, is inevitably a matter of "soft" consensus. Of course, all of us want to treat our own ideas as a matter of "hard" consensus, "accepted scholarly opinion." I think that in our field there are relatively few matters of hard consensus. But soft consensuses (?) usually erode over time, or diminish when we scholarly sheep follow a new bellwether.


FriendofRalph said...

As to the global warming comment (not the real issue I understand, but I couldn't resist), my daughter is a geological engineering major at Stanford (no bastion of conservatism!) and she assures me that among her professors, global warming has no consensus at all. There appears to be a rather strong suspicion that we might simply be in an natural cycle and that hard data is still lacking to prove otherwise. Her comment was that only academics that aren't directly connected to the study (broadly speaking, mind you) would insist that this issue has a hard consensus. Oh, and of course, certain politicians. So the labels "hard" or "soft" may be just as much in the eye of the beholder as anything else. It may often be impossible to find an honestly objective observer who knows a given subject well enough to determine.

EMC said...

This just proves that I'm not a specialist. :)