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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Consensus in the Absence of Proof

Can consensus be a substitute for science? In America, we are persistently encouraged to "follow the science." And, there is a great deal that we have academically accepted through science. To be clear, the scientific method is one of hypotheses, "a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences," according to Merriam Webster. The scientific method, is also defined by Webster:
"principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses."
In essence, the scientific method is founded upon assumptions or predictions. Those assumptions are then challenged through experiments or other analysis that generate and collect data. Data is "factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation." 

It is a relatively simple process in essence, though particular experiments may indeed be complex and challenging, as could be various hypotheses used as foundation. It is often so simple, however, that we encourage children to both accept and practice the process. Through this method, there is a requirement that facts and data support conclusions, that opinion is founded thereby or supported thereby through data. There is an inverse corollary that holds, however, that "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." So, when there is no evidence to conclusively support or discredit a particular hypothesis, some struggle with either adopting or decrying that initial assumption. Science, at times, may appear somewhat inconsistent in that regard. 

That many educated people believe the same thing does not make their conclusion science. In the absence of evidence, some might contend that science does not answer some question we may have. Some, in the absence of science, see their consensus or group agreement as supportive of their conclusion, but that does not make it science. In the absence of science, we are provided instead with consensus, that is the collective opinions of smart people, melded, combined, and restated until most of them can agree with some conclusion. 

Michael Crichton is an author and filmmaker by fame, with credits for The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park. He is also a medical doctor, lecturer, and teacher. It is fair to say that he has a scientific background. He is quoted addressing the challenge of group-think, that is consensus. 
"the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus."
Nicolaus Copernicus struggled with the science of the world into which he was born. He struggled in an environment in which Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others simply and absolutely knew the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus brought us the theory of a heliocentric system, and that was eventually published. His works formed a foundation for later study by  Galileo Galilei, which study did not always sit well with the establishment or the consensus. There have been more than a few scientists over time who challenged the "group think" of consensus. 

Outside of the specifics of science, there are other warnings about consensus. Psychologists have defined a thought destination called "groupthink":
"Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be fueled by a particular agenda—or it may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought." 
Various business writings over the years have warned of the perils of groupthink on the management process. There is a danger perceived that the absence of critical thought and challenge can lead an entity into error or even destruction. The idea is not new. In 1837, Hans Christian Anderson penned the parable "The Emperor has no Clothes." It has become a children's tale. But, it is one that we might all perhaps be well advised to strive to return to periodically as a reminder of our own perils.

It is particularly interesting when people have discussions about differing opinions. Despite them being opinions, some people accept their own as facts. They will defend them as science, despite the absence or paucity of evidence. They will accept them as science, despite them being merely consensus. And, despite this, they are some of the most eager to urge others to "follow the science." A fair few, will next (or instead) leap to invective, abuse, or insults as a method of winning friends and influencing people. Some are even surprised when their venom fails to persuade.

The fact is that we see the perils of group think outside of science; it persists outside of business, even in professions like the law. A good example is the long-held belief that Florida's Supreme Court had authority to make rules for the administrative practice of workers' compensation. See Statutory, Inherent, or Delegated. For decades, the highest Court in Florida encroached on the Executive branch. Back in 1977 Justice England dissented and explained a different perspective, but it did not persuade. Not until 2004 did the Court end its involvement, recognizing "nor has this court ever had the constitutional authority . . .." Essentially, when smart lawyers believe a thing long enough, or if enough people believe something, there is a tendency for group think to permeate and influence the whole of some subject, like workers' compensation or even astronomy. Group think is demonstrable and in it we might perceive danger. 

In our world, there remain determinations that elude science. There are questions which we are not yet up to answering. In the absence of science to address our curiosity, there is some potential or even probability for consensus to step into the resulting void. That is not necessarily inherently inappropriate. It is perhaps appropriate, when dealing with a challenge, to turn to some population whose experience, training, and education perhaps enhance appreciation for, or comprehension of, a topic. Those with such foundation may be better postured to form opinions about issues. That said, what they provide us will remain "opinion," or even "consensus," and not necessarily "science," per se. In the absence of evidence, some might argue that a more appropriate entreaty would then be to "follow the consensus."

Consensus has, since the 20th century become a systemic pursuit. Among others think tank organizations such as the Rand Corporation have brought us "group think" consensus tools. Those have become accepted and adopted in pursuit of various questions. One of the more favored is the Delphi method, in which: 
"a group of experts . . . anonymously reply to questionnaires and subsequently receive feedback in the form of a statistical representation of the "group response," after which the process repeats itself." 
With no accountability for a particular opinion or foundation, anonymous contributors repeatedly pass around a belief until they refine it into a consensus. 

The potential failures of consensus process and group think are numerous. The Houston Chronicle cites examples such as America's "failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor." Entrepenuer.com cites a variety of examples including airlines, the American automobile industry, and more. These stories of group think, and its perils, return time and again to the concept of consensus and agreement. There is a tendency "to go along to get along." Anyone who remembers bell-bottom jeans, seances, streaking, and worse will recognize the potentials for peril in group think. Remember when your explanation for some activity was all your friends were doing it, and you mom asked "if ________ jumped off a bridge would you . . . ."

We stand, as a community in workers' compensation, on the threshold of history. The first 100 years of this socialistic experiment lie in our wake, and the future is spread before us. We are confronted with a variety of supposed challenges. Industry experts warn us of perils, threats, and changes to work, the workforce, and the very concept of employment. Seemingly, these systems are persistently confronted with someone's perception that the challenges of today are somehow perceived as distinct or separate from what this system was designed to address, has evolved to address. 

Certainly, innovation and evolution may bring new challenges. There may be distinctions, for example, between the 1918 influenza pandemic and COVID-19. Or, I suggest, there may be a great deal of similarity between them as well. As we reassess our world, community, and industry in 2021, I would suggest that we must all remain cognizant of the challenges of "group think," and the rallying cry to follow the consensus. 

Admittedly, consensus is not inherently a bad thing (collective thought may spur conversation and enhanced conclusions). But, let us not forget George Orwell and his warning "Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them." Many years ago, I saw an advertisement in a national publication paid for by United Technologies: "When forty million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea." Think on that one. Everyone in agreement is not necessarily confirmation that belief is sound or appropriate. Failure to encourage or support dissent is perhaps accommodating and peaceful, but is it productive? Consensus may result merely in all of us blithely thinking someone has new clothes, which are actually something else entirely. 

It is appropriate that we take stock on our past performance, that is common as the years end. We can make plans and goals for workers' compensation in the next year, decade, or millennium. However, let us not confuse consensus and science. Let us be honest with ourselves about the problems or distinctions, and whether our solutions are actually remedies or merely paths to substitute problems. Part of that may include questioning whether proponents of any particular solution have a personal interest in the "latest and greatest" innovation that it involves. Part of it will involve careful and respectful attention to those who would dissent and disagree. Regardless of one's (dis)agreement with the dissenter, listening will make us each think. 

And, if you are inclined to disagree with me on these points, please consider first that forty million people already agree with me. Does that influence or persuade you? Would it help if I told you that four out of five dentists recommend this post for their patients that read posts? Of course, doctors (scientists) once were perceived as similarly endorsing smoking also, not through or based upon science - consensus (likely not that either). Let's each ask ourselves periodically if the emperor has clothes. 

If we are told of some outcome proposal or process change, let us ask if there is proof (science, math) to support that, or whether it is merely consensus. Let's be skeptical of the consensus and challenge whatever foundations are purported. Before we turn to consensus, maybe we can find methodology for gathering data, such as a trial or test of such proposals. If we see success from such experiments, should that make us more accepting of their premise? Let's ask ourselves whether the method of consensus is relevant to us in deciding whether we go along with those four dentists. 

In the meantime, if no one would be offended, I would like to hear from that fifth dentist. She/he might be the next Copernicus or Gallileo. Maybe it would do us all some good to hear from the so-called heretics and to give them an honest listen, regardless of whether their conclusions make us uncomfortable? Perhaps the next Louis Pasteur walks amongst us, ignored and unheralded. Groupthink and consensus may be diminishing her or his impact today. If we are truly concerned and interested, we will take the time to hear dissenting voices, consider their merits, and struggle against "we have always done it this way" arguments of great consensus. 

Will we look back one day and award her/him, that "next Louis Pasteur" we have ignored, some posthumous recognition? Or, shall we open our minds today and think for ourselves about the real science, that has proof and support of method and experiment beyond the group think? How we each choose to receive and consider information remains up to us. Whether we have the integrity to consider dissenting thought and new ideas is up to us. Our propensity to either run with the herd or consider being a maverick is our decision. 

Maybe remember Albert Einstein's suggestion: "the person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd." Where will you end up? Will you lead this industry to greater performance? Will you buy into the groupthink of lemmings (no, they do not commit group suicide), but they also do not "fall to the earth like rain" as consensus once suggested. No, they merely travel in herds assiduously sticking to the groupthink that I am suggesting we might perhaps validly question. What can we do better?