Consensusism Is Ruin
if that's not a word, it should be
Eric Topol made me paint my bathroom ceiling.
I saw this panel discussion several days ago, via Dr. Anish Koka, and immediately planned to write about it, but then the irritation made it hard to sit down and actually write, so a sizeable list of long-neglected household chores is now complete. Let’s start with the headline:
This gatekeeping discussion about Covid discussions is so clarifying. In substance, it’s a display box of cultural pathologies, all pinned down in neat rows so you can examine the whole collection at your leisure. In its tone of earnest absurdity, it has the flavor of reading Ionesco for the first time: the characters are profoundly disoriented, but they speak matter-of-factly. The Bald Soprano, now being staged with prominent medical doctors.
So: Coupling “rogue faculty” and “academic freedom” is like coupling water with flames; if faculty can be “rogue,” then disagreement is aberrant, and the term academic freedom necessarily refers to the freedom to speak within an enforced consensus. Or to put that another way: In an environment of academic freedom, you call rogue academics “professor.” Like all the other professors. Because free professors can’t be rogue. There’s no heterodoxy in the absence of an orthodoxy. Before you’ve read a single word underneath that headline, you’ve already been warned.
But then here’s one of the earliest pieces of the panel conversation that follows, from Dr. Robert Harrington, and really savor every word of this:
But COVID brought out a different issue. We had, unprecedented in our lifetimes, a truly global public health emergency. The science was moving incredibly fast. What we knew changed, sometimes day by day, as new pieces of information became known. And there were voices in our communities, including on our own campus, that were really "out there" and latched onto by a variety of forces in society, sometimes out of naivety, and sometimes out of, I believe, malicious intent.
We ended up in this situation where the public was confused, where even well-intended people weren't sure what to do. Over the past couple of years, as I've thought about it a lot, I believe it's left us in a very difficult situation. In an environment that's dedicated to open and free discourse, how do you have the difficult conversation about what is truth and what is not truth, and what is fair to talk about and what is unfair to the broader public health?
This raises questions of individual freedom vs societal good. When does one have to suppress, potentially, one's individual freedom for the greater good?
So “the science was moving,” nothing was certain, “what we knew changed,” and the difference between truth and falsehood was so absolutely clear that people who spoke outside the consensus were plainly dishonest and malicious. The truth was unsettled and debatable, but some people said some things that Harrington was certain weren’t true, so they must have been bad people. Note that the first paragraph says that what was known by scientific experts changed “day by day,” before the second paragraph claims that the public was confused only because of malicious people who misled them. Then, amazingly, “When does one have to suppress, potentially, one's individual freedom for the greater good?” — a question asked right out of the premise that what was known changed every day. Untruth should be suppressed; also, we had no idea from day to day what was true. This discussion is, and I mean this literally, insane. These people have gone crazy without noticing.
Then, on pg. 2 of the transcript, Dr. Abraham Verghese laments “voices that were working against the theme, so to speak, and not helping,” framing adherence to thematic consensus as responsible scientific behavior, before turning it into a question: “Bob, was the issue that people outside disciplines of their expertise were weighing in on things that they didn't necessarily know much about? They didn't have a body of work that allowed them to weigh in on those things, correct?” Dr. Abraham Verghese, by the way, is a memoirist and novelist who completed an internal medicine residency, and he’s explaining correct thought on Covid-19 despite not being a virologist or epidemiologist, while decrying people who “didn't have a body of work that allowed them to weigh in on those things.”
Harrington leaps in to agree: “They liked being contrarians, and sometimes being a contrarian is helpful…. But there were times during this when I said, ‘I'm not wrong. I've done this for 30-something years, and I know what's right in human subjects research. I know what's right when we're thinking about some of the public health issues.’” Remember: This is the person who just said that what he knew about the pandemic changed “day-by-day,” and here he it talking about his certainty without noticing how it fits with the other thing he said about five minutes earlier. We didn’t know; also, I was certain.
And then Topol, utterly immune to irony or to self-awareness, jumps in with this: “And it wasn't even just that. It was characterized by all sorts of ad hominem attacks.” In the middle of a 35-minute ad hominem attack on critics and dissenters. These people we hate are evil and stupid and worthless and disgusting, and they also say mean things about other people, which is wrong.
Have I mentioned The Bald Soprano? IIRC, it ends with all the characters on stage shouting non-sequiturs at each other.
And then notice how they refer to the people they wish to criticize, who are invariably unpersoned. A colleague “has one particularly difficult character” on faculty with him. Harrington replies with a reference to “the individual you're referring to,” then later talks about “the Hoover Institution faculty member who was spewing all sorts of misinformation.” They will not say the names of people who disagree with them, which is, you know, psychologically interesting. They talk and talk, and attack critics and opponents, but never mention who any of them are, except by middle-school-worthy passive-aggressive indirection. And they do this in the middle of a discussion about the importance of civility and decorum. It’s necessary to always be professional and respect one’s peers, even if a certain asshole in my department doesn’t agree.
But finally, if you have the patience to click the link and read the whole thing, a challenge: In a discussion about disinformation and the bad people in their profession who were so irresponsible that they said things which were wrong, look for the discussion about things that were disinformation until they were proved right. Look for the place where the three academic physicians talking about what critics and dissenters got wrong acknowledge that the consensus position was ever wrong. Remember, the vaccine is 95% effective at preventing transmission and infection, and anyone who says otherwise is spewing disinformation. Try to guess before you click over how many times they discuss the instances in which the consensus view turned out to be wrong. Do you even need the spoiler alert?
The overarching pathology — the big cultural sickness running through all the little pieces of sickness — is the now widely shared institutional view that consensus-focused speech is always healthy and responsible, while “voices that were working against the theme” are always dangerous.
If you adhered to the consensus in the moment of crisis, but then the consensus turned out to be completely wrong, you behaved responsibly. See also Sam Harris on Bret Weinstein, who was right but was wrong because he was right wrong.
People like this cannot succeed at their declared purposes, except accidentally. Institutions that employ these consensus-adherent ritual chanters can’t do what they say they exist to do. The view that consensus-oriented behavior is always the only responsible choice is a road to ruin. And not maybe.
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Make that "memetic societies" and Luca Dellana is bang on, since that name was used in the early nineties in the fringes of political science studies here in Sweden; bureaucracy becoming ritual being a well-known and well-studied problem even before Parkinson wrote about the phenomenon.
It was argued that thanks to increasing speed of communication and corresponding increases in pace in careers and society, messages would become more and more akin to shorthand and pictographic symbolism than actual intelligence, meaning or debate - memes. As we know, the hypothesis was self-fulfilling and correct.
(Also suggested by others, f.e. Bradbury in 'Fahrenheit 451', where he used TV-walls, bookburnings and 60 yards wide billboards next to the motorways as visual examples of the same trend.)
Look at FB, Twitter, and even Substack. This little reply, barely longer than a footnote in an academic journal of the pre-internet age (the age of greater freedom too, but that's different text), would by most be considered too long to read. And while brevity may be the soul of wit, it is by no means the voice of clarity.
Finally, a ruling caste does not need creatives. What you talk about above and as Dellana notes, societies who become fully mimetic (or memetic, or as I'd like to call it emetic) dies. Aztecs. China before communism. The caliphates of islam. The British Empire. Many more - not just because of this but the pre-eminence of following ritual in all situations and on all levels makes stasis the ideal, and also makes everything more expensive to achieve, measured in resources used.
The danger now is that this will achieved on the global level, stopping the cycle of civilisations competing for dominance and instead causing a regressive rot rationalised as "climate saviourism" but in reality intended to maintain the capitalist-authoritarian status quo.
Fall into line, Chris, or Jones will come back. Also polio.
Seriously, though, if you read "the science was moving incredibly fast" and have a reaction other than <snarf> and <delete>... well, don't say I didn't warn you. We already know these people need to be disempowered. (How's that for a word?) Intelligent people refusing to send their kids to universities with mandates is a nice first step. Too bad there are only about three of us.