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Consensus as Illusory Evidence

·458 words·3 mins
Psychology Writing

Lately, I’ve been rolling around the concepts of dishonesty vs.  an incomplete (or even merely representational) model – or similarly, inaccuracy as distinguished from explicit deception.

These are the stones that my brain tumbles in a constant attempt to smooth them.

I addressed this earlier within the framework of the popular logical problem in my essay, “Pinocchio.”

Today, I came across quite a lovely take on the matter in a book I’ve been reading, Politics of the Family and Other Essays by R. D. Laing, a work that largely fleshes out the mapping of family dynamics and the relationship of those structures to individuals who develop schizophrenia.

In his essay “Intervention in Social Situations,” Laing writes: “No one in the situation may know what the situation is. We can never assume that the people in the situation know what the situation is. A corollary to this: the situation has to be discovered. You may think this is a banal proposition, but consider the implications. The stories people tell…do not tell us simply and unambiguously what the situation is. These stories are part of the situation. There is no a priori reason to ‘believe’ a story, because anyone tells us it, as there is no a priori reason to disbelieve a story, because anyone tells it. One may have good reason, after putting it to the test, to trust certain people’s stories. The stories we are told and tell are always significant parts of the situation to be discovered, but their truth value is often negligible…Everyone has their stories as to why and what is happening. Often they agree -no more likely to be true thereby. There is no necessary or constant relationship between what people do, what they think they do, and what they say they are or have been doing.”

I.e., consensus does not equate to a factual account – despite our heuristic tendency to equate the most reported or circulated version of events as the most authoritative – especially when garnered from multiple independent sources. “It seems right!” We say. “And I heard it from multiple people who had no communication with each other but were both present for the same event. Airtight case!”

Despite the apparent common sense value of such a determination, such a thing does not make an account or any number of concordant accounts empirically true.

As Laing continues in his essay, “By what criteria does who decide whose views are ‘right’? Is this an appropriate question?”

In the world of memoir, it seems folly to claim a monopoly on objective truth – especially so for extrinsic events, of which I am always but a small part, or even for intrinsic events, for that matter, prone to my fair share of biases.


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