We are living in an era in which, for better or for worse, governments feel the need to legitimate their public policies in reference to the opinions of experts. And the more those opinions resemble a broad expert “consensus,” the more a government can feel entitled to say it has “the science” on its side, and the more easily it can dismiss dissenters as “fringe elements” whose views are marginal to the expert “consensus.” It should come as no surprise, then, that public officials, activists, academics, and citizens use terms like “expert consensus,” “scientific consensus,” and “the science,” on a regular basis to justify their preferred policies.
The problem is, consensus is actually a pretty vague and subjective term, at least as it is commonly used, and depends on impressions and inputs that are easily manipulated by those who have access to the levers of power and communication. Indeed, it is not difficult to manufacture a “consensus,” should it prove advantageous to do so.
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Let’s start with the vagueness inherent in the term, “expert consensus.” It could mean:
all relevant experts - but this sets the bar far too high, as you can almost always find at least one expert dissenter.
an overwhelming majority of experts - say, 99% - but expert opinion may shift and unless you are carrying out scientific surveys, this is based on general impressions of the field, which may not be accurate.
a large majority of experts - say, over 70% or 80% - but once the minority of dissenters is over 20%, that looks like a very significant minority, and there is certainly no reason to assume in science that the truth is determined by majority opinion, even among scientists.
an overwhelming majority of recognised experts in a narrowly defined field, say disease control.
an overwhelming majority of recognised experts in a wide range of fields relevant to the policy area in question - e.g. economics, political science, political philosophy, human rights law, etc.
Now, let’s assume we can overcome this vagueness and settle on a specific conception of “expert consensus,” say an agreement among an overwhelming majority of experts in a well-defined field of research. We are not out of the woods yet. We now have to distinguish between genuine and fake consensus. A genuine consensus is one that could be verified, in principle, by impartially interviewing all qualified “experts” in the field. A fake consensus is one that is just “smoke and mirrors,” or “image management.”
I’m not going to prove here that the notion of expert consensus has been abused and manipulated in public debate. Instead, I just want to point out how easy it is to manufacture a fake expert “consensus.” I will leave it up to the reader to decide whether and to what degree any of these techniques have been deployed by governments, scientists, or journalists in relation to contested policy questions.
Here are some steps we might take to manufacture an expert “consensus”:
Discredit dissenting scientists as “fringe” elements too incompetent or crazy to be taken into consideration. One way to do this is to have anonymous journalists “fact-check” their statements and declare that they are false or “unscientific.” Once dissenters have been discredited, they need no longer disturb the “scientific consensus.”
Only give a voice in the media to those who represent the “consensus” view. This way, readers will only hear representatives of the “consensus” and will assume that dissenters either do not exist or are so crazy or incompetent they do not deserve to be heard.
Systematically censor any information that contradicts the approved “consensus,” with a “misinformation” policy, as Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter 1.0 have done. Out of sight, out of mind. Information that disappears from view might as well not exist, from the perspective of the ordinary citizen.
Create “expert committees” that are loaded in favour of specific policy positions. This gives a certain range of opinion disproportionate influence over government policy and disproportionate access to the media. As long as dissenters are kept off such committees, such committees can reinforce the idea that there is a solid scientific “consensus” in favour of lockdowns, climate change policy, masking, digital currency, or whatever the government wants to push through.
Have opinion leaders use terms like “expert consensus” and “scientific consensus” ad nauseum to describe positions that are in fact intensely contested. Eventually, these terms, if echoed by enough opinion leaders, may mesmerise the public into thinking there is in fact a robust consensus on a particular issue.
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P.S. In case it’s of interest to you, I thought I’d share a link to a recent “Think Twice” symposium I participated in with Aaron Kheriaty, Simon Elmer, and Daniel Broudy, “What are we up against and what can we do about it?"
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I follow many Substacks (as many of us do) & cant possibly read everything that comes in. I read mostly headlines and titles and go into depth including comments on very few. I read this particular essay of yours today and wanted you to know that you produce thoughtful, well written content. The fact that you have surprisingly few comments and likes (compared to other higher profile Substacks), shouldn’t deter you. You have your own voice and way of communicating that is really solid and from an angle that is relevant to a wide audience if only they weren’t so distracted by some of the more sensational content. I hope more people will find you and interact with your content. Keep up the good work.
1(b) could be to engineer/foster an atmosphere in which would-be dissenters are disinclined to speak out. For example,
- bring in laws that penalise any scientific experts who contradict official policies.
- Exploit scientists' dependence on corporate funding for research purposes: make an example of certain dissenters by withdrawing their funding.