On Going Against the Consensus

Speak the truth, even if your voice trembles.

-common saying

The fact is, sometimes the right thing to do is stay quiet when everyone else is wrong. Let's illustrate with the parable of the raft:

Once upon a time, a group of people were shipwrecked on an island. There was a fishing port nearby where they could get help, but only if they could sail there.

Roger, a bright but awkward man, thought he might be able to build a raft and figure out how to sail it, though he did not know all the details yet. He offered to do so.

William, the de-facto leader of the group, thought this was a good idea, but saw that putting Roger in charge of such a project would threaten to upset his own carefully maintained social position, which he believed to be a stabilizing factor in the group. Therefore he proposed that they should build the raft as a group, with everyone's opinion taken into account, so as to maximize the information available. After all, none of them were experts, and it was good to make sure everyone felt included, for the sake of social stability. He gave an eloquent speech in favor of this approach, and most everyone agreed heartily that it was the best way to go.

After a few days of meetings and debates and a small bit of progress towards deciding how to put the raft together, Roger suspected that this method wasn't going to work. Though he wasn't a persuasive speaker, he tried to speak up, and said that they were all going about it all wrong, and that good ideas were being drowned out by an uninformed consensus, and they should just let him do it.

William, again wary of the "social instability" of allowing Roger to dominate the project, cleverly turned group opinion against him. How dare he suggest that they were incompetent? How dare he go against what the group had decided? Did he think he ought to be leader? How presumptuous.

With the group all unanimously telling him he was wrong, and urging him to just go along with things, Roger started to doubt himself. After all, it was just a hunch that he could do it better than the whole group. Was it really worth all this? He apologized and backed down.

But despite his capitulation, Roger could not shake the feeling that this was not a hard problem, and that he could do better. He resolved to secretly build and learn how to sail a raft.

After the first few days of his work in another area away from the group, people started to question his absences. Why wasn't he helping? Where was he? He wasn't attempting to build a raft, was he? That would be insulting to the rest of the group, and antisocial.

But by this point, Roger had given up trying to argue with them. He didn't think it was insulting or socially destabilizing to build his own raft, but it also wouldn't do any good to try to argue against an entrenched consensus. He lied to assure them that he was just going for walks and looking for food and other things that might help them build the raft. Meanwhile, he continued to work on his raft.

Real decisions involve real uncertainty about outcome, so I'm cutting the story off here. If Roger's private raft project works, then of course he was right, and we hope everyone else can accept it. But the neat storybook ending would spoil it; we have to decide if Roger is doing the right thing without the benefit of hindsight.

I think he's doing the right thing. He is sincere, well-intentioned, and his project puts no one else's well-being at risk. Unfortunately, he finds himself in opposition to group consensus, and has to work against that consensus in secret.

But if we are to take my opinion on Roger's righteousness as instructive of moral truth, we have to believe that a certain class of situations actually does occur. We have to believe there are cases where the following premises are all true:

  1. If group consensus is wrong, even while reasonable and sincere people are caught up in that consensus.

  2. If we know by our own judgement that consensus is wrong.

  3. If the incorrect group consensus is thoroughly socially entrenched, so that the social cost of arguing it out of its silliness is higher than we can pay.

  4. If the strength of our own ideas and judgement enable us to act outside consensus to accomplish the task at hand despite everyone else.

Then we can act outside and against group consensus with a clear conscience. It is obviously preferable to be able to stand proudly by our ideas, but there are times when social circumstances make this legitimately the wrong thing to do.

I believe that there are circumstances where we can know all of these statements to be true. There are many times in the context of engineering where I have been in such a situation, and have had to pull such a move. Debate and consensus are often terrible ways to figure things out, compared to prototyping and personal judgement. It's usually socially and organizationally risky, but it also often pays off.

One might think this is obvious, that going against the consensus is of course a legitimate thing. It is after all the foundation of the strength of free enterprise and organic social forms over central technocratic control. But there is a big gap between the abstract idea of bucking false consensus as described above, which many people think is noble and good, and the concrete reality of saying or working on something socially unacceptable, which people react poorly to.

When the consensus is wrong and socially weaponized in this fashion, it can sometimes help ease minds to move to the meta-level like I have done with the argument in this essay, to remind your inquisitors of the value of breaking out of consensus groupthink. Certainly the parable of the raft is much more socially palatable than my object-level beliefs.

But in a really entrenched consensus, even the meta-level can be defended by socially-enforced anti-truths which mirror the above premises:

  1. "Our society is full of open debate, it is not reasonable for the consensus of educated opinion to be so drastically wrong. It is insulting to suggest that your family and friends are in the grip of false ideology."

  2. "Individual judgement is unreliable and prone to bias; we should usually trust peer-reviewed academic science and legitimate journalists over our own ideas. It is arrogant to believe that you can second guess these mechanisms."

  3. "Even when majority opinion is wrong, the right thing to do is debate, and ultimately, the truth will win out. Why are you keeping your ideas hidden, unless they are wrong?"

  4. "Only extremists and misanthropes with bad ideas need to act outside of legitimate mechanisms."

Do these ideas sound plausible to you? They sound plausible to me, and even though I don't believe them, I don't always have the sophistication to refute them on the spot.

But ultimately, the point of this essay is that we have to distinguish between knowing that we are right to break consensus, and being able to persuade our friends to give us social validation for being persecuted truth-sayers. Real consensus-bucking carries real costs and real uncertainty; if you go against the group, everyone is going to think you're an asshole, and they might be right. You have to abandon the comfortable luxury of group consensus and social validation, and get by solely on your own judgement and conscience. The only thing you can do then is either back down, or read Atlas Shrugged again, stay out of everyone else's way, and strike out independently to build the future by your own judgement.