Posts Tagged ‘consensus’

Against an Argument for Science as Instrinsically Social

Saturday, 19 January 2019

I have argued that persons outside of any social context can be scientists. Recently, I watched and listened to a recording of an interview of one philosopher by another, in which the two agreed that science is intrinsically social, that persons outside of social contexts cannot be scientists.[1]

Towards explaining what was wrong with their argument, I'll first explain their argument. One of the very most important things that a scientist ought to do is to look for areas of potential vulnerability in theories, and to test those theories against what evidence may practicably be gathered. And any one researcher is imperfect in his or her ability to find such potential vulnerabilites, in knowledge of existing evidence, and in capacity to collect new evidence. It is often particularly difficult for any one researcher to recognize the unconscious presumptions that inform his or her own theories; exposing the work of one researcher to the scrutiny of other researchers may mean that those presumptions are recognized and challenged.

All right; but, just as any one researcher is imperfect, so are jointly any two researchers, or any three researchers, or any n researchers, for all finite values of n. In fact, I am nearly certain that even an infinite number of scientists would be insufficient to overcome weaknesses across the whole body of theories that these scientists could construct; but, in any case, science is not an unattainable limiting case of behavior. One might instead pick a finite n, and insist that one does not have science until one has n participants engaging in behavior of some sort, but the choice of n would seem to be quite arbitrary; and I'd like to know what one should then call the behavior when there are fewer participants.

As a practical matter, it is far from clear that two people each in isolation engaged in that behavior would continue to engage in that behavior when brought together. Social contexts can promote peculiar forms of irrationality. Historically, a great deal of what has been widely taken to be science by participants and by most observers in wider society has often been grossly unscientific behavior resulting exactly from social pressures. A great deal of what passes for science these days is socially required to conform to consensus, which is to say that social mechanisms protect widely shared presumptions from scrutiny.


[1] As it happens both one of those philosophers and I referred to Robinson Crusoe as an individual outside of a social context. It was natural for us each independent of the other to reach for the most famous example within our shared cultural context, but it heightened my sense of annoyance.

Just Pining

Sunday, 5 August 2012

On Sunday, 27 May, I received a pair of e.mail messages announcing formal acceptance for publication of my paper on indecision, and I ceased being braced for rejection. From 15 June, Elsevier had a version for sale on-line (first the uncorrected proof, then the corrected proof, now the version found in the journal). The issue itself (J Math Econ v48 #4) was made available on-line on 3 August. (I assume that the print copies will be received by subscribers soon.)


Reader may recall that, not very long ago, I was reading A Budget of Paradoxes by Augustus de Morgan, and that when de Morgan used the term paradox he did not use in in the sense of an apparent truth which seems to fly in the face of reason, but in the older sense of a tenet opposed to received opinion. De Morgan was especially concerned with cases of heterodoxy to which no credibility would be ascribed by the established mainstream.

Some paradoxes would later move from heterodoxy to orthodoxy, as when the Earth came to be viewed as closely approximated by a sphere, and with no particular claim to being the center of the universe. But most paradoxes are unreasonable, and have little chance of ever becoming orthodoxy.

I began reading de Morgan's Budget largely because I have at least a passing interest in cranky ideas. But reading it at the time that I did was not conducive to my mental health.


Under ideal circumstances, one would not use a weight of opinion — whether the opinion were popular or that of experts — to approximate most sorts of truth. But circumstances are seldom ideal, and social norms are often less than optimal whatever the circumstances. When confronted with work that is heterodox about foundational matters, the vast majority of people judge work to be crackpot if it is not treated with respect by some ostensibly relevant population.

In cases where respect is used as the measure of authority, there can be a problem of whose respect is itself taken to have some authority; often a layering obtains. The topology of that layering can be conceptualized in at least three ways, but the point is that the layers run from those considered to have little authority beyond that to declare who has more authority, to those who are considered to actually do the most respected research, with respected popularizers usually in one of the layers in-between. In such structures, absurdities can obtain, such as presumptions that popularizers have themselves done important research, or that the more famous authorities are the better authorities.


As I was reading de Morgan's book, my paper was waiting for a response from the seventh journal to which it had been offered. The first rejection had been preëmptory; no reason was given for it, though there was some assurance that this need not be taken as indicating that the paper were incompetent or unimportant. The next three rejections (2nd, 3rd, 4th) were less worrisome, as they seemed to be about the paper being too specialized, and two of them made a point of suggesting what the editor or reviewer thought to be more suitable journals. But then came the awful experience of my paper being held by Theory and Decision for more than a year-and-a half, with editor Mohammed Abdellaoui refusing to communicate with me about what the Hell were happening. And this was followed by a perverse rejection at the next journal from a reviewer with a conflict of interest. Six rejections[1] might not seem like a lot, but there really aren't that many academically respected journals which might have published my paper (especially as I vowed never again to submit anything to a Springer journal); I was running-out of possibilities.

I didn't produce my work with my reputation in mind, and I wouldn't see damage to my reputation as the worst consequence of my work being rejected; but de Morgan's book drew my attention to the grim fact that my work, which is heterodox and foundational, was in danger of being classified as crackpot, and I along with it.


Crackpots, finding their work dismissed, often vent about the injustice of that rejection. That venting is taken by some as confirmation that the crackpots are crackpots. It's not; it's a natural reäction to a rejection that is perceived to be unjust, whether the perception is correct or not. The psychological effect can be profoundly injurious; crackpots may collapse or snap, but so may people who were perfectly reasonable in their heterodoxy. (Society will be inclined to see a collapse or break as confirmation that the person were a crackpot, until and unless the ostensible authorities reverse themselves, at which point the person may be seen as a martyr.)


As things went from bad to worse for my paper, I dealt with how I felt by compartmentalization and dissociation. When the paper was first given conditional acceptance, my reäction was not one of happiness nor of relief; rather, with some greater prospect that the paper would be published, the structure of compartmentalization came largely undone, and I felt traumatized.


Meanwhile, some other things in my life were going or just-plain went wrong, at least one of which I'll note in some later entry. In any case, the recent quietude of this 'blog hasn't been because I'd lost interest in it, but because properly to continue the 'blog this entry was needed, and I've not been in a good frame-of-mind to write it.


[1] Actually five rejections joined with the behavior of Abdellaoui, which was something far worse than a rejection.

Science and Consensus

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Sometimes I've simplistically said that invocation of consensus is not a scientific method. A more accurate claim would be that its use is a way of approximating the results of more rigorous methods — a way of approximation that should never be mistaken for the more rigorous methods, and that is often unacceptable as science.

Calling upon consensus is a generalization of calling upon an expert. Using an expert can be analogous to using an electronic calculator. In some sense, using a calculator could be said to be scientific; there are sound empirical reasons for trusting a calculator to give one the right answer — at least for some classes of problems.

But note that, while possibly scientific, the use of the calculator is, itself, not scientifically expert in answering the question actually asked of the calculator (though some scientific expertise may have gone into answering the questions of whether to use a calculator, and of which calculator to use). Likewise, calling upon opinion from a human expert is not itself scientifically expert in answering the question actually asked. That distinction might not matter much, if ultimately scientific expertise from someone (or from some thing) ultimately went into the answer.

The generalization of invoking consensus proceeds in at least one direction, and perhaps in two. First, using consensus generalizes from using one expert to using n experts. But, second, invoking consensus often generalizes from invoking the views of experts to invoking the views of those who are less expert, or even not expert at all.


Individual human experts, like individual electronic calculators, may not be perfectly reliable for answers to some sorts of questions. One response to this problem is the generalization of getting an answer from more than one, and, using a sort of probabilistic reasoning, going with the answer given by a majority of the respondents, or with some weighted sum of the answers. However, this approach goes astray when a common error prevails amongst most of the experts. If one returns to the analogy of digital calculators, various limitations and defects are typical, but not universal; a minority of calculators will answer some questions correctly, even as the majority agree on an incorrect answer. Likewise with human experts. That's not to say that being in the minority somehow proves a calculator or a human being to be correct, but it does indicate that one should be careful in how one responds to minority views as such. (In particular, mocking an answer for being unpopular amongst experts is like mocking an answer for being unpopular amongst calculators.) Counting the votes is a poor substitute for doing the math.

A hugely important special case of the problem of common design flaws obtains when most specialists form their opinions by reference to the opinions of other specialists. In this case, the expert opinion is not itself scientifically expert. Its foundation might be in perfectly sound work by some scientists, or it might be in unsound work, in misreading, in intuïtion and in guess-work, or in wishful thinking; but, in any case, what is taken to be the scientifically expert opinion of n experts proves instead to be that of some smaller number, or of none at all! In such cases, consensus may be little better, or nothing other, than a leap-of-faith. It isn't made more scientific by being a consensus.


In a world in which expert opinion were always scientifically expert, broadening the pool to include those less expert would typically be seeking the center of opinion in less reliable opinion. However, as noted above, a field of expertise isn't necessarily dominated by scientific experts, in which case, people less expert but more scientific may move the center of opinion to a better approximation of a scientific opinion.

Additionally, for an outsider in seeking the opinion of experts, there is the problem of identifying who counts as an expert. The relevant knowledge and the relevant focus do not necessarily reside in the same people. As well as experts failing to behave like scientists, there are often people instead focussed on other matters who yet have as much relevant knowledge as any of those focussed on the subject in question.

So a case can be made for sometimes looking at the opinions of more than those most specialized around the questions. None-the-less, as the pool is broadened, the ultimate tendency is for the consensus to be ever less reliable as an approximation of scientific opinion. One should become wary of a consensus of broadly defined groups, and one should especially be wary if evidence can be shown of consensus shopping, where different pools were examined until a pool was found that gave an optimal threshold of conviction for whatever proposition is being advocated.


What I've really been trying to convey when I've said that invocation of consensus is not a scientific method is that a scientist, acting as a scientist, would never treat invocation of consensus — not even the consensus of bona fide experts — within his or her own area of expertise as scientific method, and that everyone else needs to see consensus for no more than what it is: a second-hand approximation that can fail grotesquely, sometimes even by design.

Another Liar-in-Chief

Monday, 9 February 2009

Calvin Woodward, at the AP, calls this an overstatement:

Most economists, almost unanimously, recognize that even if philosophically you're wary of government intervening in the economy, when you have the kind of problem you have right now … government is an important element of introducing some additional demand into the economy.
but it goes well beyond mere overstatement. It's an gross lie.

It's bad enough when people use consensus to argue for a proposition that ought instead to be tested by logic applied to brute fact. But this business of using counterfeit consensus is just actively vile.