What Even Is Consensus? Why Critical Thinking Is Needed

Consensus is what we believe as a society; the views that - on the surface at least - are shared by many must be the general accepted opinion.

The media, of course, play a huge role in what is deemed to be the consensus view. For instance, did the fact that 250,000 people queued to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth’s Lying in State mean that the UK is fiercely pro-monarchy? Or was it that the outsized media coverage of this queue what made everyone believe that this indeed was the case?

Do we like consensus because it easier, because it does not require us to challenge ourselves or others? Availability bias apparently plays a role, states Adam Grant, professor of Psychology at Wharton Business School. Information that is readily available can be easier recalled than information that isn’t and hence the ‘ready’ information is deemed to be more important. So we are told by the media daily leads us to believe that what is said by the media is right, or at least must reflect the consensus view. Or is it that the views of the silent majority are, well, silent, and hence it is the loudest and most reported-on views that are deemed society’s consensus view?

Have a look at the following beliefs below, which were all the consensus beliefs at the time the statements were made and were totally wrong – at least we know now (source: Morgan Stanley):

About rail (in 1800): “Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia”. Dionyius Lardner, eminent Professor of Natural Philosophy at UCL (ignoring air-resistance and friction in his calculations).

About air-conditioning (in 1889): “Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is unpractical and a waste of time. No one will use it ever”. Thomas Edison, inventor.

About flight (1902): “Flight by machines heavier than air is utterly impossible”. Simon Newcomb, Canadian Astronomer and Mathematician (the first such flight took off in 1903).

About PCs (1977): “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”. (note the ‘his’ sic). Ken Olsen, Chairman of the Digital Equipment Corporation.

About PC memory (1981): “No one will ever need more than 637KB of memory in a computer. 640KB ought to be enough for anybody”. Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft.

About smartphones (1992): “The idea of a personal communicator in every pocket is nothing more than a pipe-dream, fuelled by greed”. Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel (and Times Man of the Year in 1997).

About music-streaming (2003):” Subscription models for music are bankrupt. I think they will never be successful”. Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple.

About video streaming (2005): "There are just not that many videos I want to watch". Steve Chen - CTO and co-founder of YouTube, who sold YouTube to Google for $1.65 billion on 2006 – something he may regret now. YouTube users watch 1 billion videos each day!

And more recently, the 2022 Nobel Prize for Physics was given to three professors (Clauser, Aspect and Zeilinger) who proved that quantum entanglement is real, more than a 100 years after the theory was first introduced by Max Planck and Niels Bohr and discredited by no one else but Einstein himself as ‘spooky’ and unscientific’.

These are just a snapshot of views that were deemed to be the (only) right view in their respective times. The use of the word ‘never’ in many of those statements leaves no room for any future viability or probability. But history proved them wrong. So why did/do we accept those views?

Adam Grant states that this tendency to confirm is ‘common for people without power or status, who suppress their own dissenting views in favour of that of the HIPPO’ – the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. And disagreeing with famous CEOs, highly regarded professors, loud minorities and/or persuasive politicians is often a futile task, making entire societies beholden to ideas that can be completely wrong, outdated or stupid. We need to apply critical thinking to circumvent it.

Critical thinking is best exercised via the simple question why? What are the facts? What do I think? What is possible? Why not, or why yes? Can I prove that something is true -factual - or not? Can I make my voice heard? We give normally more importance to evidence & facts & stories that correspond to our beliefs than to information that contradicts it. But we learn more from people who disagree with us than from people who confirm what we say and think and asking questions is good, essential even.

Without critical thinking we may not have had electricity or aircon or smartphones or social reform or electric vehicles – just think how Elon Musk was mocked for trying to build EVs when he acquired Tesla for only $6.35 million in 2004.

Use your brain and never be afraid to ask. Try to look ‘around the corner’ and from the position of standing in another person’s shoes. You will be the better for it and possibly change the world or make a fortune along the way.

Links & references:

‘Think Again’. Adam Grant 2021.