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.

1 comment:

EMC said...

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