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Science and Consensus

by Tim O'Reilly
Sep. 2, 2002

Joi Ito posted a very interesting review of a book entitled Science in Action by Bruno Latour. The focus of the book (or at least of Joi's take on it) is that scientific "facts" are really a form of what some people have called consensus reality. (I point to the wikipedia definition for convenience, but I think that the term may have been coined by psychologist Charles Tart.) That is, facts are not really facts at all, but rather postulates that have become generally accepted through a process of social consensus-building. Many is the "fact" that never achieves that status because no one pays attention to the postulate or observation in question and so no consensus is built.

Of course, this is a very anthropocentric view. It reminds me a bit of the time Samuel Johnson was asked to comment on Bishop Berkeley's theory that everything exists only in the mind. Johnson said, "I refute it thus:", kicking a stone to complete the sentence. I like to think that both the external world and the human mind play a conjoined role in defining "reality". In short, I believe A) there is an objective world outside of us, B) that we perceive it, C) that we tell ourselves stories about it (i.e. build language abstractions and other mental models that describe it), and finally D) close the loop by mapping the world into our models and affirming that mapping as "reality". A "fact", in the sense that Joi and Bruno Latour are talking about it, is the completion of all four stages of this perceptual process.

But still, Joi's point is a good one. In practice, A, B, C, and D often get out of sync. As Joi notes, "facts" become "black boxes" that are very hard to take apart again. We have theories (C) that have reified into "facts" (D) and are hard to dislodge, even in the face of new data (B) suggesting that things (A) aren't what they seem. And this isn't just in the scientific realm, but in the interpersonal one. How many people do you know who don't have preconceived notions that keep them from seeing a situation or another person accurately? Why should our interpretation of the physical world be any less moderated by our existing beliefs?

I remember a history of science class I took in college. Like every other such class, we read Thomas Kuhn's classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which introduced the term "paradigm shift" to describe the changeover from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy. But my professor, Owen Gingerich, had a twist on Kuhn's idea. Ptolemy's system didn't break down just because new observations prompted a theory that better fit the data, but because of an entire social and intellectual milieu that was ready to accept such a change. It was an aesthetic and philosophical revolution as much as it was a scientific one.

And that takes me to one of my all time favorite authors, poet Wallace Stevens. Stevens' theme, repeated throughout his poems, is the dialogue between the world and the mind:

In college, a friend of mine named Lewis Gannet (whom I've long lost touch with) wrote an amazing paper drawing ideas from Claude Levi-Strauss's book The Savage Mind and Wallace Stevens' sole book of essays, The Necessary Angel, to argue that while earlier societies had shared belief systems, our challenge today is to build shared beliefs knowing that they are not "true". Stevens' solution, in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction", was to recognize that the construction of reality is an artistic act, not just a scientific one.

At about the same time, I studied with a man named George Simon, who was trying to build what he called "languages for consciousness," believing, like Benjamin Whorf (author of Language, Thought and Reality), that our language limits our ability to perceive, and that until we have languages for certain states of consciousness and perception, we won't be able to use them. He saw his work as an extension of general semantics, a system developed in the 30's by Alfred Korzybski, author of Science and Sanity. Korzybski's famous statement, "the map is not the territory" is more than an observation; it's a tool for living more perceptively. A lot of my friend George's work was in training people to open up the ladder of perception, to recognize the difference between what you are experiencing directly vs. through various levels of abstraction, to let go preconceived notions and let the world come in fresh.

George also argued that as human consciousness evolves, certain things that were once on the frontiers of awareness, and that were experienced with near-mystical force, become commonplaces as they are routinely abstracted into language. In my classics honors thesis at Harvard, I used this premise to assess certain of Plato's dialogues, arguing that the mystical overtones with which Socrates describes concepts like justice and truth were the result of the newness of his ideas. As we "rehearse" these now familiar ideas thousands of years later, we don't get that same rush. Most of us receive them at a level of abstraction, fitting them into our accepted system of facts, rather than taking them in through the entire ABCD perceptual cycle. (And yes, I recently came across a copy of the thesis, and when I find time, I'll scan it and put it up online.)

Wow, I had no idea that Joi's blog would set me off on such a tour of the underpinnings of my personal intellectual history! But I have to say that I still find this kind of thinking incredibly stimulating, and my early training a big help in coming at ideas and situations with a fresh and balanced eye.

P.S. My friend George died in an accident in 1973, and his writings were never widely published. Korzybski's book is out of print, but there's a contemporary book on general semantics called Drive Yourself Sane that seems to be fairly highly recommended, and of course, there's A.E. van Vogt's science-fiction classic, The World of Null-A, which is about to be reissued.

Some related ideas can be found in a book called Focusing by Eugene Gendlin. Gendlin's work comes from a completely different tradition than general semantics, but it has some similarities to parts of George Simon's work in training people to surrender to their perceptions and let new information come in, rather than hanging on so hard to existing maps.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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