Just listen to the consensus

My earlier post on the “Perceived bias in the Indian Media”, led to an interesting discussion with Ketan in the comments section where we exchanged views on a lot of aspects of this problem. One of the main points that came up was whether we should trust the opinions and findings of third parties, or interpret the facts and find out the truth for ourselves.

Specifically regarding the Godhra riots, we disagreed upon whether or not it was a systematic carnage perpetrated against Muslims. His view was that we must try and find out the truth by looking at whatever data seems important to us and interpreting that data. My view was that we should spare ourselves the trouble and go with the consensus arrived at by the Human Rights Watch group, the NHRC, the USCIRF, and of course the various journalists, editors, and political commenters.

The consensus is usually right

The consensus is usually right

I thought a blog post explaining why it makes more sense to listen to a consensus would be helpful in making my position clear, since I rely on a good consensus to make up my mind about a lot of things including climate change.

My stance in a nutshell is that when a consensus between various independent agencies is genuine, qualified, and widespread enough, it makes much more sense for an average person like me to just accept the consensus without questioning it when a complicated situation is involved.

Here are the essential qualities of a reliable consensus:


All the parties engaged in the consensus should have arrived at the same conclusion on their own. No party should have been influenced by another. This reduces the chances of arriving at biased conclusions. In the case of Godhra, I go by reports not just from the Indian media, but also the international media, and various assorted national and international Human rights groups who give an overall picture of what happened.

In the case of Climate change, we have scientists from all over the world from different organizations, different countries and different branches of science.


Those who make up the consensus must be in a position to give an opinion. For example, 95% of people believe in god, but they’re not qualified to make that judgment! A scientist however, is qualified to given an opinion on climate change. In the case of Godhra, we have reports from those who have done the groundwork and are in a position to comment on the issue. Even the Supreme Court has commented on the shoddy investigations.


It’s important for the consensus to be large enough before it can be called credible. This means you take all the qualified people who have an opinion on the matter and find out the percentage of those supporting the consensus. In the case of climate change for example, the consensus is 98% – pretty damn huge.

Complicated situation

It’s only complex situations that require a consensus approach. I don’t need a consensus to decide on whether or not someone throwing a sizable rock at my head is dangerous or not. On the other hand, in the case of something like the Godhra riots, there are so many facts and so many incidents that even if I try and find them all out, there’s an excellent chance I will miss some important incidents or interpret those facts wrongly – not being able to put everything in context by taking the timelines and putting it all together. This can be seen when two people argue about Godhra. Both will have facts and throw them back and forth with none of them being able to convince the other. Why do I stand a better chance?

The same goes for climate change. It’s all very well for me to try and “find out the facts for myself,” but can I really do it? Do I have so much faith in myself that I’m sure of reaching the correct conclusion from terabytes of scientific data? I think not.

The greatest burden for me personally is to find out if there is indeed a valid consensus going by the points given above. And sometimes it’s not easy to figure out if it’s valid. In the US for example, most people are simply unaware of the fact that Anthropogenic Climate Change is overwhelmingly endorsed by scientists. But that’s a problem we’re going to have to live with. With a little bit of digging, we can find out whether the consensus is real or false. Once we do that, we just need to go with the flow – it makes ever so much more sense.

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  1. Good write up, loved it.

    Allow me to crack a joke. "consensus" need not be right all the time, Take God for example. Lady gaga is another example :-)
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