19 February, 2015

Consensus or Truth?

The Purpose of Academic Journals

(Originally published 2010 in response to an article in New Scientist)

In both the editorial and in a Special Report in New Scientist (2764), the issue of the moderated publication of scientific papers was addressed. The main emphasis in both these contributions was about the relative ease or difficulty involved in getting your contributions published in Journals, and they concluded that it is much easier to do so in the USA than elsewhere. Their main figure is shown below.

The main discussion around this figure is interesting and worthy of study, but there is another quite different and significant slant on the data presented which was not addressed in the New Scientist article. That unrevealed content is just how the consensus in a particular research area gets both established and maintained. It will, of course, be initially generated in conferences and with department discussions, but such collaborations are both too local and too personal to achieve any significant weight and momentum.

Surely then, the main areas for the establishment of a consistent view must be via the Journals and their implicit imperatives evident from what is accepted for publication. It will therefore be, both in what are the commonest positions, but also in how such “agreements” affect what is expected of researchers attempting to get their “foot in the door”.

A colleague of mine in submitting research for his Doctorate was returned to the task several times to “inflate his references”. Without solid evidence of his having addressed ALL the “relevant authorities”, his contribution would not be accepted.

NOTE: Now I have to add here that I have known this colleague for 40 years, and in a long career, he is by far the best teacher I have ever come across, and his methods are both exemplary and innovative. His thesis was on his remarkable contributions in his specialist teaching area, and as usual was a masterful and significant effort, but in spite of all this he was directed to “do it right”. He had to establish his credentials within the relevant body of contributions worldwide before his work was accepted.

Now this seems eminently reasonable, but when I am reading anything, I do not constantly have to make sure that “all possible alternatives have been included”: establishing value is not done by a measure of comprehensive attention to all accepted alternatives.

In contrast I have been writing in my current areas of research for some five years, and include very few mentioned references to other contributors in the same field, and there are very sound reasons for doing this.

The most important process involved in integrating externally sourced ideas into your own coherent World View, cannot be by mere additions. If it was the constant adding-in would make the overall result not more understandable, but indeed a great deal less! The only purpose of including new ideas is that they correct, or extend and deepen what you already understand. NOTE: I didn’t say “know”, but “understand”!

And such a process isn’t a map with flags showing all the places you have visited, but an ever more understandable and coherent part of a general World View. You don’t mention all your teachers and exactly what they taught you in establishing your overall understanding, do you?

If a researcher is presented with an impressive network of mutually referring authors and their contributions in the chosen field, each with an individual slant, and many cross-qualifying or rejecting arguments, it becomes very easy to be sucked into a closed network of assumptions and arguments.

In my recent work on Zeno, I came across an anthology of writings on this remarkable Greek philosopher gathered together by Wesley Salmon, and was duly swamped with a thousand possible lines to follow. But chasing all of these was NOT the way to go forward: only a way to join the club! 

So. I did what I always do, and alighting on something which evidently threw new light on my current concerns (and even difficulties) , in this case Plurality, I set about first understanding what was meant by this philosophical term, and then integrating it into my own work.

But such a process should never be merely a selective rationalisation! Nothing could possibly be gained by such a blinkered undertaking.

Though, from my earlier comments, it may seem that I was cherry-picking, taking only what I could massage into my previously constructed fabric of ideas that would only be possible if you were merely constructing your own personal world. That couldn’t be further from constructing a World View, which attempts to explain all things: to be both coherent and comprehensive!

You can rest confidently on the work of many others, as embodied in the prevailing consensus, or you can attempt to actually understand, piece by piece and as a coherent and holistic whole all that you can choose to experience or access. Such is a much more demanding mistress! You don’t merely collect and remember. You have to inter-relate and begin to understand the necessity of these relations.

When very young, you have no choice but to take on the consensus penumbra of the work of others. You simply do not have sufficient experience or techniques to wrest everything for yourself from this complex World. But as time passes, you begin to be troubled by inconsistencies, gaps and evident uncorroborated assumptions, and you begin to make connections on your own account. But, of course, even then, you find yourself at a major disadvantage, and have to establish your initial small truths and build outwards.

Indeed, you are very soon aware of the flaws and indeed weaknesses in your own position and constantly seek to remedy them whenever and from wherever you can. Whatever it is that you are reading, it will always present considerably less than is the result of your own constant efforts and the supreme arbiter for anything you consider has to be YOURSELF!

So instead of such an approach being local and superficial and definitely NOT to be trusted, with these criteria and approach, the opposite is the case. If you can’t satisfy yourself that you understand something, then you don't. Such imperatives will always be much more objective than those which test your ideas merely by their closeness with some scarcely understood consensus.

Finally, let us be clear just how permanent is the already acquired core of ideas to which new material can be inserted and integrated. It is open for abandonment, at any time, if something better can replace it.

As a long term student of Emergences, I am aware that all “conclusions” will only be temporary stabilities and that every one of them will in time be undermined and dismantled in the process of an Emergence, which will establish a wholly new and higher Level on its conclusion. Knowing this, you can't defend your personal position to the death, but, if it is proved to be wrong, you then undertake its replacement by something wholly better.

The yawning slide into Postmodernist eclecticism was ever presented before my feet, in this large Anthology, if I had succumbed and attempted to check out, and deal with, the vast numbers of ideas contained within Salmon’s offering. There is a method of travelling which says you cannot know in what direction the Truth lies, so you must find the best place from which to survey the maximum of the surrounding landscape, before you make a move. That position is best achieved by my integrating method.

It doesn’t necessarily take me in the optimum direction, but it does ensure that when I achieve my next temporary summit, I will make the most well-informed decisions as to where to go next.

I feel I have to ask what the purpose of an Anthology such as Salmon’s is for! It certainly aims to be “comprehensive”, but in the classical philosophical way, that presents ALL the options (within a general consensus) and seemingly makes no real conclusions, and takes on no resolving responsibility. As a teacher I know that the latter must be addressed. Otherwise no real help is involved, and hence as a contribution no real progress is proffered.

It is a contribution in Philosophy not unlike that of Tycho Brahe’s contributions in Cosmology: which delivered no answers, only facts? So, if the researcher in his chosen area does NOT address this “consensus body of ideas”, you will be rejected out of hand!

As your “lack of required ticks” on the checklist of necessary mentions grows, it becomes increasingly clear that you do not qualify as a serious researcher, but are more of a self-indulgent selector of “conducive scraps” and will be rejected as “unworthy” of inclusion.

You will be assumed to be wrong, merely because you do not supply comments or arguments to everything across this significant consensus.

It turns out to be an easy way of rejecting the majority of contributions. The assessors use the criteria of the consensus to judge whether you are worth considering. Now this is a very surprising criterion!

It's like saying that the Truth is that opinion held by the most people involved in that particular area of study. “You must be wrong because most people do not agree with you!”

The position of mine expressed here may seem to be a very unfair damning of a system of peer-review that has grown up over many years to make the assessment of contributions both fair and “disinterested”, so such comments as I have stated here may seem untenable. But, let us be clear, most scientists while wanting to find their own special area, will, at the same time, find security in settling into the most widely-held basic consensus position. They will basically agree with the consensus (to ensure acceptance), while vigorously seeking barely-trod outposts to establish their own "unique" contributions.

The imperative ensures, on the one hand, a highly conservative and conformist position, while on the other hand, specialising to an extremely thinly-spread area.

For a new member of any group of scientists working in a given area, such a heady and hard-to-integrate overall range of material will, of necessity, demand a great deal of work, merely including the minimum number of meaningful mentions to inflate the final references list to acceptable proportions. The new man will be sucked into the current debate and also, and significantly, into the hidden, but universal assumptions of the group. One has to ask, “With such a forming environment and demanding schedule of legitimising work, will, of necessity, put our freshman on the right road, or will it do the opposite – and wed him to the prevailing consensus, with little chance of breaking through to a better position?"

My contention is that it will, most certainly, and for the vast majority of fresher scientists, lock them into the prevailing consensus.

Important aside: In quite another area, I have been researching the trajectory of qualitative developments of all kinds – not only in the ideas and theories of Mankind (both in Science and further a-field), but in self-evolving Reality itself. And what has become very clear is that such growing changes are NOT merely incremental extensions or additions, but, on the contrary, and most crucially, occur in rather rapid changes of a quite revolutionary nature, generally termed Emergences.

And, after more than a decade of studies in this area, I have discovered that the significant changes are never, ever the results of progressive, incremental developments within our agreed consensus. Quite the reverse is true, in fact, and the initial phase of such an Event is always an initial major crisis, which results in an inevitable cataclysmic dissolution of any previous stable and continuing state. The whole edifice collapses because the structure was based on and maintained by things which though for a period did keep things stable, they were always temporary and are never eternal systems.

The dissolution is then followed by a seemingly chaotic interlude, which turns out to be the only climate in which real, innovatory changes can ever occur, yet also by their “youth” and simplicity, will just as inevitably generate their own immediate challenging, and fairly quick demise. But such a trajectory does not end there. Indeed, what follows is a regular oscillation of developments, both forwards and backwards, though each new temporary stability lasts a little longer than the last, until finally a new, and persisting Level appears which seems to be the end of the process. It certainly is the end of that particular Emergence. The reason for its “success” is always its self-maintaining features, which oppose all other contending possibilities, whether dissolutionary or progressive.

Thus the most remarkable thing about such a New System is that it was born of relatively-free significant change and innovation within chaos, yet to persist it had to become intensely conservative, with a whole galaxy of processes tuned to suppress ALL new qualitative change of any type that pressed in any direction at all.

Now, these trajectories are so strong and universal, that they will certainly apply to scientific bodies of Theory in a given area, just as they seem to apply to everything else. So this must change our prejudices about the generally accepted positions (the consensus) in any particular area, and, of course, the academic journals with their peer assessments will unavoidably be a vital part of this conservatism.

They will suppress non-conformist contributions out of necessity! 

Indeed, it is not far from the truth to state that, “The consensus is always wrong!” Now, this means that to be too strongly determined by the weight of general opinion conforming to a consensus, will certainly have the effect of “drawing your best-teeth”, and in the end, turning you into another member of the “agreeing group” – and hence easily accepted as a “serious contributor”, because you are aware of the consensus and embrace its “collective wisdom”, while thoroughly investigating your own small (usually comparatively non-challenging) part of the general area.

The reader may well get quite angry with all of this (and as with the avid defenders of flawed Democracy – “as the best there is”), and may well demand to know what alternative this critic has to the universally applauded peer-assessment system agreed to by everybody else.

And that would be a very valid point to make. Without some tested and agreed consensus, anybody could say anything and your subject would be more like one of the usual TV channels than a serious concentration of “truth”. I can only make two points to counter such a sound defence:

ONE: I do read what is going on in a remarkably wide range of areas of study, and

TWO: I refrain from being determined by the evident implicit consensus. In other words I take a sceptical position to the consensus, by noticing its evident inconsistencies and philosophical immaturity. I consider it my task to attempt to improve in some way on the current consensus.

It just has to be incomplete, and even erroneous, so my task is to both reveal and correct it where these things occur.

The most significant developments that I ever make come from criticising my own contributions; now this may seem contradictory for my criticisms are supposed to be with the generally agreed consensus.

But, where do you find them? You find them within your own ideas: you cannot avoid them! All knowledge and theories are social (NOT individual), and even when you consider that you are having totally original thoughts, you are mistaken. The bulk of what you “know” is second hand, and cannot be otherwise. But to address such things as they appear “out there” is almost impossible. But, within yourself there is some sort of integration. Without it you would merely be a repository of unconnected “facts”. If you have always tried to understand what you have been taught, read or even found out for yourself, you will have integrated each new morsel into a rich and complex system.

What better place to correctly dig out the socially-passed-on flaws?

So, by now, after a lifetime of doing this, I read both new publications and crucially, my own past papers. And in this latter activity, I always find errors and inconsistencies, that require correction or removal, and my co-ordinating and understanding producing principles are coherence and comprehensiveness.

After a lifetime as a teacher, I realised that NO TRUTH is possible, if localised only within a single specialism. The seeker for Truth must be a polymath, he/she must study all areas of serious research – the search for real understanding has to be completely interdisciplinary.

Now, notice how different that is from my earlier description of “joining the consensus”, while “finding your own niche”. That trajectory only leads to conformism and narrow specialisms, whereas what is required is the widest range of areas and the attitude of the revolutionary. Do you agree?


Now I cannot terminate this paper without a word about the diagram from New Scientist that triggered it off. I include it again here, so the comments will at least be adjacent to their subject.

This diagram was provided along with the article The Stem Cell Wars [New Scientist 2764]. Have a good look at how the various contributors are related by cross references. On the non-US side literally all of them refer to a single source (Yamanaka), while on the US side, apart from Yamanaka, there are a series of key contributors who refer to each other as well as who seem to be referred to by a large proportion of the rest of US contributors. You would be hard pressed to consider that the non-US side amounts to a consensus, but what about the US side, some 17 different individuals form a network of cross references. To supply informed peer-assessors would doubtless draw upon this network to judge new offerings.

How do you think that this might affect a determining consensus?

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