Look at Europe, where the consensus on ever-greater integration, ever-bigger government and ever-deeper debt has led its economies into the embrace of an unsustainable one-size-fits-all monetary union – the demise of which now threatens the global economy. For decades, the intellectual consensus if not the popular will in Britain has been in favour of closer union and the eventual adoption of the euro. As Gordon Brown put it in 2003 “I believe that this pro-European consensus can widen and deepen in the times to come.” How lucky we were that he was wrong about that, too.
Look at this year’s Chemistry Nobel, Daniel Schectman. The consensus was that his work on quasicrystals was nonsense: he was thrown out of his research group and accused of shaming them with his work. Double Nobellist Linus Pauling called him a quasi-scientist. Until, that is, his work turned out to be right, and to offer an extraordinary extension in our understanding of matter, revealing new vistas in materials science.
Consensus in science is bad enough, limiting our access to fresh insights and improved technology, but consensus in politics and finance can be devastatingly costly. In 2008, the ratings agencies provided a false consensus on the quality of many “AAA” mortgage-backed securities. Today, everyone is busy calling for more financial regulation, but not enough are worrying about the results of such regulation: a consensus position on risk management. If that consensus is wrong, everyone who follows the rules will be in danger.
Richard Feynman once said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Schectman said that the lesson of his triumph over consensus was that “a good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 per cent in what he read in the textbooks”. Humility plus experimentation is the right formula for businesses and governments as well. Neoliberalism, if it means anything, rejects the false certainties of central planning for the uncertain heterogeneity of free markets. It says the safest world we can imagine is one in which no group is ever allowed to impose its certainty on everyone else, where we accept that only ceaseless experiment in the face of our own ignorance can hold back the weight of error.
Consensus sounds pleasingly collegial; it murmurs that all the right people have sat together round a table and nodded sensibly at one another. It is fatal in a world thick with confusion and ruled by our easily-mistaken intellects. Consensus is a claim to rock-like certainty. Businesses and the public build their fortunes on its foundations, forgetting that consensus can be just another word for groupthink, and that we do not make foundations firm by our opinion of them. When consensus is wrong, it brings the whole roof in with it.
Marc Sidwell is the business features editor for City A.M.