Monday, June 10, 2013

Thoughts on the Tyranny of Consensus

Any community that has entered into a “consultation” process with a developer knows that the deck is stacked against them. The outcome is already assumed, and the process is at best one to determine the cost of buying off the community but at base is an effort to sidetrack and contain their concerns. That is the nature of this perversion of consensus: It is called “win-win” but one side gains a desired resource that they would have taken anyway and the other gives it up for ... what?

Such consultation is thus all too often engaged in to enforce a validation of the foregone outcome sought by the more powerful party. The choices for the less powerful party are to come to terms or not. The outcome is already determined. These consultations are thereby an utter sham. One side has no power whatsoever except in how it agrees to the terms of its capitulation.

In recent weeks, I have noticed that several prolific advocates of industrial wind power are also bullies about vaccination, water fluoridation, genetically modified plants, “smart” meters, among a package of knee-jerk “pro-science” positions. They mock and disparage all who have concerns about any vaccination or fluoride delivery regimen, or who ask exactly who benefits from, and who is harmed by, certain technological innovations, just as they mock all those who testify of, and all those who acknowledge those, noise and health impacts from industrial wind turbines too close to homes. Like other bullies with religion, they are hiding behind “science” to force their own self-aggrandizing worldview, their fetishization of technotopia, on others, particularly those who are able to think more broadly and subtly than they.

Most crucially, the targets of their mockery are not beholden to industries to which they themselves have pledged their troth. It is they, the “company men”, the “good soldiers”, that deserve, if not mockery, or contempt, than perhaps our pity.

Science is a process, not a “truth”. Above all, it is a process of questioning, of testing. Again like religion, when it is in the service of the state’s or capital’s power of coercion, it is more often abused and perverted than a beacon of good. When it is “settled”, it is no longer science, but dogma. The heros of science generally broke ranks from the consensus of their peers. Many were vilified for it. Ignaz Semmelweis, for example, ended his life being beaten in an asylum for his unacceptable hypothesis that physicians themselves were responsible for the high rates of maternal deaths in obstetrical clinics, which could be avoided if they washed their hands. He sought the truth, not consensus; in fact, the consensus was against him. There was no compromise acceptable — from either side. The medical industry recoiled from his findings and asserted its power against him. And in time, they had to admit he was right.

By discussing the word consensus, I do not mean to question that field in which it is most often invoked in the popular press: the “consensus view” of anthropogenic climate change. But I do question that invocation. Another term for “consensus view” is “mob rule”, or the tyranny of the majority. Sometimes the majority is right, quite often it is not. That is a feature of scientific research and literature as much as any other human endeavor. In science, too, is seen the “echo chamber” of internet and other self-selecting communities: Gatekeeping against “pseudoscience” and “quackery” becomes an excuse to shut out any findings that differ from one’s own desired outcomes. Institutional efforts inevitably tend towards reinforcing rather than testing consensus, towards defining rules of inclusion in and exclusion from the community, towards propping up its own members and denigrating those outside. Science — the pursuit of truth — comes to seem less important than scoring points against the perceived opposition. Or securing and defending contracts in various industries’ pursuit of profit and power.

[See also:  Coercive Harmony]

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