Thoughts on Consensus

Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

I was watching a Youtube video posted by Peter Boghossian. For those who don’t know him, he grabbed my attention and gained my admiration back in 2017 and 2018 when he and two colleagues, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, exposed the fraud at the heart of academic journals, particularly in critical studies departments. The three submitted multiple “academic” articles to multiple “academic” journals (that were actually published) on ridiculous topics such as rape culture among dogs in dog parks and the need for straight men to use sex toys on themselves anally to overcome their homophobia and transphobia.

More recently, he has toured college campuses to conduct an exercise he calls Reverse Q&A. The idea is that rather than lecture and have students ask him questions, he asks students to state their opinion on a topic, which ranges from strongly agree to strongly disagree. They stand on a line that indicates their level of agreement, and he asks them questions. Then in real time and based on what they are hearing, they may move to a different place along the scale as their opinions shift.

I have watched a number of these, and it is clearly a great way to get people to not only think about their opinions but to verbalize the rationale behind those opinions. If I were still teaching, I would love to use some form of this in my classroom!

The other day I watched an episode on Dartmouth’s campus, and the topic was “‘My body my choice’ should be consistent for vaccines and abortions.” Everyone begins on the neutral line, and Dr. Boghossian counts down so that all move at the same time to avoid being influenced by what others do. In this particular episode, an older man and an older woman (I would guess them to be over 50 years old) both move to the Strongly Disagree line. Two younger people (in their 20s?) move the opposite direction, one landing on Strongly Agree and the other on Slightly Agree. And another younger man, somewhat cowardly, remains on the Neutral line.

And so the questions and answers begin. You can watch the entire exercise HERE. But you don’t have to in order to understand my concerns about some of the responses, concerns that expand across so many contentious discussions in our society.

In particular, I was disappointed in the responses from the two older people, the two from my generation. And I was pleasantly surprised by the articulate answers from the younger ones, particularly the gentleman who strongly agrees with the statement.

In the beginning, both of the older people claim they disagree with the statement because they think it makes a category error. I can accept that and would agree that vaccines and abortions are not equivilent. But moving past that, they perfectly illustrate three common problems that often surface in discussions on heated topics:

  1. mistaking consensus for truth.
  2. failing to comprehend opposing arguments.
  3. remaining steadfastly closed-minded.

Let’s look at these one by one.

First, the older woman insists that because there is no consensus on the value of the life of a fetus, women should be able to have the choice of an abortion. It’s her body, her choice. Without a consensus, no one has the right to impose his or her values on anyone else, she says. She even goes so far as to state that policy ought to be established based on consensus.

Dr. Boghossian points out to her that a consensus is not the same as the truth and that there is no guarantee that a consensus is right or true. A consensus, he continues, is really just an opinion. She hesitates but half-heartedly agrees. I would have liked to have asked the woman if she could think of any times throughout history that it turned out the consensus was wrong, or that the consensus was morally repugnant. I can think of more than a few. I’m sure you can too.

I would have liked to have asked her what she means by consensus. I decided to look up the definition, and doing so left me more confused. The definition box on Google gives the definition as simply “a general agreement.” Merriam Webster adds “unanimity” to that definition. Merriam Webster’s second definition is “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.”

The Cambridge English Dictionary has as its definition “a generally accepted opinion; widely accepted.” Dictionary.com states that a consensus is a “majority of opinion.”

So how many people have to agree to make a consensus? Is 51% a consensus? Is 100% agreement a consensus? Or is it somewhere in between? And probably more importantly, who gets to decide what that number is?

My other question would be who exactly makes up the population that is determining the consensus? A population of, for example, religious people, might have a consensus that the life of a fetus has high value. Or does that consensus not count? Or maybe the population of a state has a consensus that the life of a fetus has value. Does that count as a consensus? It seems a majority of Supreme Court Justices have determined that abotion should be a state and not a federally-decided issue. Is that a consensus?

What else is interesting about this argument is that the woman stated that because there is no consensus on the value of life of a fetus, we must choose to act as if the fetus’s life lacks value and therefore allow abortion. But why? If there is no consensus that the life has value then doesn’t that mean there is no consensus that the life doesn’t have value either? So why can’t we decide in the other direction, that the fetus has value and should not be aborted? Why can’t we say, “Since there is no consensus on how much value the life of a fetus has, let’s just err on the side of high value and disallow abortions”?

And what about the idea that policy should be decided by consensus? Should that really be the standard? Or would “truth” be a better standard? Besides, those in power and in our government make policy decisions every day that have little to nothing to do with consensus. 

For example, as recently as July 23rd, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global health emergency. However, it could be argued that there was a consensus that it is NOT an emergency if a consensus is indeed a majority. According to an article in science.org, “WHO’s Emergency Committee, which met on 21 July, did not reach a consensus on whether to declare the burgeoning monkeypox outbreak in more than 70 countries a PHEIC [Public Health Emergency of International Concern]; with a narrow majority voting against doing so. But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, invoked a PHEIC at a press conference this afternoon in Geneva.” 

Why did the director-general decide to ignore the consensus? 

Many polls show that there is a consensus among citizens that abortions in this country should have restrictions related to fetal development. Yet, despite that consensus, plenty of people are arguing in favor of laws preventing restrictions as well as for the dismantling of or the packing of the Supreme Court. So when the consensus (Supreme Court ruling) is not in alignment with your opinions, then consensus doesn’t matter? But when the consensus aligns with your views and values, then we should follow, and make policy based on, that consensus? 

What if the consensus is that abortion should be banned? Would this woman still believe that we should follow the consensus? 

The second area that shocked me was when the older two claim that they simply do not understand the argument in favor of the original statement as presented by the young man Vlad. To summarize, Vlad argues that freedom and liberty are more important than forbidding a woman the right to choose or forcing a vaccine (particularly the COVID shot) on an individual who does not want to be injected.

When asked what he thought about the opposing opinion, he readily concedes that the older man had given a compelling argument about why people should get vaccinated.

Dr. Boghossian then asks the older people if they understand Vlad’s argument about individual freedom and the reasoning behind it, being very clear that they do not have to agree with Vlad. 

The older man does not actually respond but rather returns to his own argument, stating his confusion at ignoring the social impact of spreading an infectious disease by not getting vaccinated. The woman plainly declares, “I’m not sure I understand Vlad’s argument.” She doesn’t expand or ask any questions about it.

That got me thinking. Was it really true that they don’t understand? Vlad’s argument isn’t complicated – it’s pretty straightforward. Or if they actually do understand it, why can’t they admit it? 

The conclusion I have come to is that if they admit to understanding the opposing arguments, it would mean that they might actually have to consider it as a possibility. They might have to engage in a back and forth, defending their opinion and poking holes in the arguments of the other side. That requires a lot of thinking things through, a lot of questioning and of testing your own views. 

But if the other side makes no sense, is spewing nonsense, then there is no need to consider it. In fact, you can dismiss it completely. There is no need to listen to such nonsense, right? How often do we see this played out in politics, in the media, or on social media?

Ironically, one point of this exercise is to give people the opportunity to listen to the other side and to reconsider their own opinion. So periodically, Dr. Boghossiann checks in with the participants, asking if anything they have heard has resulted in a shift in thought, requiring a move to a new position. And that shift could be from Agree to Slightly Agree or from Slightly Disagree to Disagree, for example. 

At one point he asks Vlad, who stands on the Strongly Agree line, just how confident he is in his opinion. His answer is fascinating, albeit at first confusing. But at the end, it shows how open-minded he actually is.

Vlad says his confidence that his opinion is correct is a 7 on a scale of 1-10. Why? Because, he says, “I don’t want to rob myself of the opportunity to change my mind.” There is a danger in believing you have the right answer, he continues. He believes he has a strongly reasoned argument, which is why he stands on the Strongly Disagree line, but, he adds, “Who am I to say I have the answer to this question.” 

Absolutely.

How do the two older people respond? There is nothing anyone can say or show them that would get them to move off of the line Strongly Disagree. Hmmmm.

I am reminded of an idea I first heard from Bret Weinstein. A poor paraphrase of what he said was that if there is no potential evidence that would cause you to change your mind, then your opinion is not evidence based. Upon hearing this, I immediately began a mental exercise. I  took some of my strongest opinions and challenged myself to imagine what evidence I would need to be shown in order to have me reconsider my opinion. And there were a few where I really struggled to imagine what that evidence would be. But I was determined to find it so that I could confidently say that I base my opinion on facts and evidence and that indeed I AM open-minded. I highly recommend trying this with your own strong opinions.

I have been confused over the past few years, watching people my age seemingly abandon critical thinking, tolerance, civility, and open-mindedness. And I was disappointed in those of my generation on this video. But maybe that’s to be expected. As I have gotten older, I am increasingly astonished at how little I know and at how few answers I have. But I suppose it is also possible to decide as you age that you are more and more certain of your views and that you know all that you need to know.

And with all of the talk of Millenials and Gen Z, I have to say that the younger people participating in this exercise give me much needed hope.

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