Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The power of a false consensus / Follow-up: Various

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Pondering a few recent texts (most notably: [1], [2]), I recalled something long forgotten:

The Asch conformity experiments.

The general idea: Many bow to a near-consensus opinion that they do not actually share—or, worse, actually change their opinions to conform with the near-consensus, for no better reason than the status as near-consensus. This even when we look at a situation where it is fairly obvious that the majority has it wrong.

What, then, might happen, when we look at an issue with no obvious answer? One where the answer might be clear to those who have put in the research, but where most individuals will not have done so?* Consider the many issues around COVID that have been fraught with uncertainty or where the science has changed over time. Consider various Leftist claims about women’s earnings, systemic racism, and similar, which seem convincing on a casual glance but collapse when someone actually looks at the facts at hand—which far too few have actually done.

*Which might sometimes be a failing; sometimes, merely a result of how little time there is for so many topics.

In light of this, various acts of censorship, straw-manning, defamation, etc. suddenly make more sense. Ditto the constant cries of “Fake news! Fake news!”.

What if the reason is not what I have always assumed, namely to prevent debate and to prevent others from being exposed to arguments, facts, and statistics—but to create a false* feeling of a consensus, with the object that the skeptics be “Aschered” towards the preferred opinion? (Be it by actually changing their minds or by making them conform in their claimed opinions.) For this to work, the perceived consensus must be near unanimous—or the existing dissenters must be so thoroughly discredited that they do not give the skeptics reason to continue their skepticism or, worse, turn into new dissenters.

*Note that this, in a worst case, could take place even in face of a true near consensus in the opposite direction, provided that the power of misrepresentation is sufficiently large. A potential example is that, as I have mentioned on a great number of occasions, journalists, politicians, and social scientists very stubbornly ignore inconvenient biological results, even to the point of claiming the exact opposite. (Including a great many claims relating to I.Q.) What proportion of the population reads the papers and what proportion actually has an exposure to biological scientific results?

The problem for the censors and whatnots: One individual standing up against a near consensus might find himself alone, without support, doubting himself (“Am I right—and all the others wrong?!?”), or otherwise have a weak position. Switch just one other to his side, let alone two or three, and the situation is very different, and the chances that he will stick to his guns are that much greater. Next, what if these few turn into even just a noticeable minority in society, making every potential dissenter or skeptic know that he is not alone?

Apart from the general observation with regard to e.g. Leftist propaganda and COVID-scaremongering, there is the important lesson to never change one’s mind for reasons like being in a minority. Being in a majority or a minority is only very rarely a useful argument—and a mind should be changed only if sufficiently strong and convincing real and relevant arguments are presented.

Excursion on the reporting of Asch’s results:
I was slightly disappointed by the discussion of results on the linked-to Wikipedia page, where the tendency to switch opinion was nowhere near as large as I wished to remember. This is explained by claims like “However, a 1990 survey of US social psychology textbooks found that most ignored independence, instead reported a misleading summary of the results as reflecting complete power of the situation to produce conformity of behavior and belief.”, i.e. a considerable distortion of the findings with a potential false consensus … (I do not see a conspiracy here, but it is an interesting coincidence, and an example of how science can be falsified when reported by middlemen, be it deliberately or accidentally.)

I would, however, not truly see this as weakening my above speculation. In part, the belief of the perpetrators that they would be successful is more important than their actual chances at success; in part, as stated above, the greater uncertainties around e.g. COVID (relative the clear decisions in the experiments) are likely to make the victims considerably more compliant than in the experiments.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 18, 2021 at 3:45 pm

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  1. […] just encountered a few pages that provide a good illustration of both the problem of The power of a false consensus ([1]) and of […]

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