The Pressure of Group Thought

Peter Wood

Academic “consensus” is in the news. Stetson University professor of psychology Christopher Ferguson, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently gave a run-down on how the American Psychological Association supposedly compromised itself by manipulating a task force into endorsing harsh interrogations of prisoners.  Ferguson says the APA “crafted a corrupted ‘consensus’ by excluding those who might disagree.”

Which is, of course, exactly how the dodgy “climate consensus” works too. “Climate consensus” is the rhetorical club wielded by the proponents of the theory of catastrophic man-made global warming. On campus—and in many other venues—to express the slightest doubt about the theory is to risk a “climate consensus” drubbing.  “Consensus” in this sense is pretty close to what John Adams warned in 1788 could become “the tyranny of the majority.”

The U.S. Constitution was meant to forestall that tyranny; but Americans also found other ways to hold back the eagerness of proud majorities to impose their views on everyone else.  The doctrine of “academic freedom” is one of those majority-busting concepts.  An idea isn’t necessarily right merely because lots of people like it.  Keeping a space open for dissenting views is always a good idea.

And that’s why when someone pulls the “consensus” card out of the deck, it is probably time to demand a new shuffle.


Christopher Ferguson tiptoes around the fake climate consensus.  His essay, after all, was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which flinched when the climate thugs came out a few years ago, and these days it never deviates from its consensus crouch.  Ferguson genuflects before the global warming consensus: “of course” it is “based on the quality of the data.”  He fails to mention that the data and the theory have never matched and the discrepancy has grown into a yawning chasm in the last eighteen years of the “pause” in global warming.  But let’s not pause.

Ferguson does have other examples.  He cites the 1986 Seville Statement in which twenty scholars convened by UNESCO serenely declared that human nature has no “genetically programmed” tendency towards violence.  As Ferguson notes, the science since Seville hasn’t been friendly to that particular consensus.

When Consensus Collapses

Ferguson’s examples of the “consensus” of one historical moment collapsing in the next is intriguingly brief.  I suspect he or the editors of the Chronicle did not want to remind readers of just how many consensus idols once cherished by academics have crumbled into dust.  Or, being cherished, are held together by the intellectual equivalent of Elmer’s Glue-All.

Once upon a time, Margaret Mead’s view of “culture” enjoyed the status of consensus in anthropology. Culture, to Mead, was an Open Sesame that permits any social arrangement we care to imagine and abolishes the constraints of human nature. Mead-ism still has its supporters, especially among advocates of outré arrangements such as polyamory and transsexual rights, but it has long since dissolved into intractable controversy.  No well-informed observer within anthropology would claim that there is a “consensus” about the quality of Mead’s field observations or the breathtaking generalizations she drew from them about human sexuality.

For many years it was an article of faith—and consensus on the American left—that Alger Hiss had been wrongly accused of spying for the Soviets and lying about it under oath.  Hiss was accused in 1948, convicted of perjury in January 1950, and sentenced to five years in prison. For the rest of his life (he died in 1996) Hiss maintained his innocence and enjoyed fervent support from liberals as well as leftists. But shortly after that, Ron Radosh, Harvey Klehr, and John Earl Haynes, and other researchers in the archives of the former Soviet Union turned up irrefutable evidence of Hiss’s guilt.

When a “consensus” dies, die-hard supporters remain.  Believers in Hiss’s innocence remain. Perhaps there is something in human nature, overlooked by Margaret Mead, that causes some people to stick with a sinking ship even after all that is left is a half-submerged deck chair.

Consensus after consensus has sunk beneath the waves, but it is a big ocean.  There was room in it for the Cold War revisionist thesis that blamed Stalin’s aggression on the West, and room too for the War on Poverty and for Affirmative Action.  Those ideas, of course, are not dead, but they are shadows of the “consensus” once claimed on their behalf.

None of these examples peep out from Ferguson’s Chronicle article, but he does offer the telling observation that consensus-style arguments in the social sciences are especially bad.  Ferguson observes that such consensus “has usually been declared despite continuing debate among scholars.”  An example or two might have helped.  What about the question that got Larry Summers defenestrated at Harvard?  Why are there so few women at the highest levels of mathematics and theoretical sciences?  The “consensus” answer—discrimination against women explains everything—was indeed imposed “despite continuing debate.”  We are in much the same territory with the new “consensus” on the percentage of college women who are assaulted.

Ferguson’s own example of phony consensus is from research on the effects of video games on children. I’ll take his word that the field is rife with flimsy claims dressed up as “consensus.” The more interesting question he raises is why the word “consensus” carries such weight.

To answer that, it helps to have a sense of how the word climbed into popular use.

Different Seeds

If you go to Google’s famous Ngram Viewer, which tracks the frequency with which words appear in books year by year for many centuries, you will find there was virtually no “consensus” in the English-speaking world in the 17th century.   An apparent “consensus” boomlet between 1625 and 1630 was caused by the printing of a Latin text comparing the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views of the teachings of Peter on church doctrines of matrimony.   The word was still Latin for the most part, though a 1675 English dictionary offers “consension,” meaning “agreement,” not to be confused with “conseminate” which is “to sow different Seeds together.”

Consensus didn’t escape Church Latin and some specialized medical meanings until the end of the 19th century.  A sober little essay on “Pitfalls in English” that appeared in the Journal of the Canadian Bankers’ Association in 1897 (why there?) calls out the phrase “consensus of opinion” as a vogue usage that has replaced “the general opinion.”  The Canadian bankers, alert to pitfalls, observed that “consensus of opinion” is redundant because “consensus” all by itself means “agreement in opinions” and “agreement of opinions of opinions is not a very neat expression.”

After that the term rumbles along for half a century at a low level of usage. The Adoption of the Consensus System is the Only Remedy for Political Chaos huffs the title of a 1927 tract.  The Boy Scout magazine, Boys’ Life, in 1933 describes its selection of football players for the all-Scout all-America team as “the consensus of five nationally famous all-America selections.”

The point at which the word takes off is 1950.  Duke University Press that year published Toward Consensus for World Law and Order, which seems to have been a pro-UN screed popular with what we now call Peace Studies folk.  In the July 1950 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists the eminent Michael Polanyi warned that “Scientific consensus can properly emerge only by a discussion based on the mutual grounds of the same scientific convictions.  It cannot be negotiated in the manner of a contract, nor decided by any voting procedure.”  By the late 1950s, “consensus” is clearly in vogue as an academic term cropping up in all manner of topics, from Richard Hofstadter’s history of the progressive era, The Age of Reform, to such oddities as sociologist Gresham Sykes’ study of a maximum security prison in New Jersey, where he writes about “the hard core consensus expressed by the members of the captive population.”

Culture Wars vs. Consensus

After that, “consensus” talk just grew and grew, the upside-down image of consensus reality, which withered and cracked.  All through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, as the Culture Wars took shape and America split apart into identity groups that wanted nothing to do with the old “melting pot,” American writers turned out books and articles by the thousands extolling “consensus.” I won’t try to follow this ascent in detail.  I don’t think there is any one book or author who stands as the redwood tree in the forest of ordinary consensus celebrants.  But there are curious further developments.  Around 2000—the year George W. Bush was elected—“consensus” began a slow decline in popularity, and an even sharper decline starting in 2007.  But then the Obama years bring a consensus come-back.  Google finds a paltry 876,000 “consensus” documents in 2008.  It zooms to 1.8 million in 2009, then climbs steadily to 9.6 million by 2014.

Permission to speculate?  I see some evidence that “consensus speak” is largely the rhetoric of the left.  Consensus is the agreement or the solidarity that the left seeks to declare when it sees itself as able to dominate.  The left isn’t so interested in consensus when it is out of office or sees its rivals on the rise.  The right seems far less interested in consensus, nationally or internationally.  Probably that’s because the right tends to see politics as the balancing of competing interests rather than a winner-take-all game.

Be that as it may, the American infatuation with consensus does seem to vary inversely with our actual level of social agreement. Consider a divisive issue that marks as well as anything the divisions of the culture war:  abortion.  In the Google Ngram world, the chart of increased use of the word “consensus” is a close match with the use of the word “abortion.”  They rise and fall together.

Distrusting Consensus

The left today is infatuated with “consensus” as a tool that can be used to ostracize views it would rather not have to debate.  If there is a consensus on “Black Lives Matter” or “Climate Change,” the matter is settled.  The herding instinct of the collectivist left is stroked by consensus.  The right has some of these herding impulses too, but it also has a much stronger strand of individualism, and for individualists the pronouncement that something is backed by consensus is a warning label.  That label says, “Probably contains unwarranted assumptions, unfounded factual claims, and an aversion to considering alternative ideas.”

But liberals don’t always like consensus, and there is one particular consensus they heartily dislike: the broad agreement among Americans in favor of America itself.  In her book, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (2008), Stanford University historian Wendy L. Wall, for example, works hard to demolish “the façade of consensus” in the United States, which “concealed an ongoing context involving many different groups.”  When the opposite of consensus is social diversity, naturally academic sentiment is on the side of diversity.  Diversity trumps in every context except diversity of ideas.

There was a time, however, when liberal sentiment was decisively on the side of national consensus.  The historian and political scientist Clinton Rossiter famously described Parties and Politics in America (1960) as founded on consensus.  And he seemed to think this was a good thing: “The American consensus is unique in its virility and broad appeal”; America has “an acceptable consensus among the elites in every part of the land”; and “The blessed fact of the American consensus forces the parties to share many of the same ideas. The blessed fact of American diversity forces them to be selective about the ideas they may wish to emphasize at any one time or any one place.”

It bears pointing out that the “diversity” Rossiter was writing about was the political culture of the states.  “Diversity” as a code word for ethnic identity groups had not yet been born. By the end of the 1960s, however, the old consensus was dead—and so was Clinton Rossiter, who committed suicide at Cornell in the aftermath of the seizure of the student union by heavily armed black students.  Rossiter’s attempts to temporize with violent racial grievance had left him few friends and nowhere to stand.  Sic transit consensus.

Consensual Relations

“Consensus” seems to be in decline.  Christopher Ferguson’s Chronicle article is part of the evidence, and so too is the freezing up of campus debate on contested issues.  As quite a few observers have now pointed out, we have moved into a period in which students themselves are attempting to silence dissenting opinions.  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s thorough account in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” takes us right to the heart of a movement, “driven largely by students, to scrub campuses of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”  This is “consensus” thinking in action. If “everyone” agrees, we can just disregard the ignorant or stubborn few who actually don’t agree.

That might seem like “consensus” on the rise rather than in decline, but the logic of cultural change is always full of irony and inversions.  The self-coddling students imposing a new Victorian etiquette on campus and the viciously enforced pseudo-consensus on global warming are two different kinds of admission that “the tyranny of the majority” in higher education is breaking down.  That tyranny works most effectively when it is quietly assumed.  If the proponents have to use sharp elbows and uppercuts, the pretense of “consensus” is demolished.

Should we want consensus to rule in higher education?  At a certain level, yes.  We need consensus on the framing principles:  searching for truth; listening to opposing points of view; demanding evidence for assertions; asking skeptical questions even—or perhaps especially—when skepticism is unwelcome; learning how to respond to substantive arguments; and grasping that ad hominem attack is not the way civilized people respond to those with whom they disagree.  And the individual scholarly disciplines need some practical consensus.  We need to agree on what the mass of a kilogram is and whether class meets today or tomorrow.  But we can actually get by rather well in the midst of strong disagreements about fundamental questions. Does God exist?  What is human nature?  Is American exceptionalism valid?  It is not that the answers don’t matter.  It is that getting to the answer by imposing a “consensus” is bound to have bad results for a free people who need to learn how to think for themselves.


This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on August 27, 2015. 


Image: © Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 2002 / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5

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