James Smith and Maria Garcia, undergraduate students of Applied Physics and Religious Studies respectively, meet at the university coffee shop to discuss events of the day.
Maria: Hey James! How were your classes today?
James: Hi Maria – my classes were quite interesting. Particularly, during the morning session, we were evaluating several models of gravity. At that point, our professor made an intriguing statement: “Robust knowledge requires both consensus and disagreement”. We had an interesting discussion in class, however, I would like to discuss this claim with you, since we have contrasting fields of study.
M: Intriguing indeed. However, before delving any deeper into this conversation, I think it will be useful to define some of the key terms within the claim. For example, I believe that robust knowledge refers to knowledge that can withstand criticism and is undisputable. Therefore, when your professor made that claim, I think he was referring to the process of acquiring robust knowledge rather than the knowledge itself. Would you agree?
J: Yes. Consensus is also an interesting term – if there is consensus within a group of people regarding an issue, then the majority of those people are in agreement with each other about the solution or the concept being discussed. That would be my definition of consensus. What are your thoughts?
M: I agree, and disagreement would simply be the opposite of that. Tell me, what were some of the initial questions that came to your mind when you heard that statement? I know I have some in mind.
J: Well, since I am studying to become a scientist, the first thought that came to my mind was ‘What role does evidence have in the development of consensus?’. I believe that this is a very significant question to ask since different fields of study have different methods of gathering knowledge.
In the world of science, one of the major factors that affect the research’s credibility and validity is the methodology that is used – which includes the data collection, sources of errors, and reliability and accuracy of the equipment used.
Furthermore, statistical analysis is paramount in almost any scientific research paper focused on experimental methods that test a theory, and for reliable statistical analysis, there needs to be as many data plots as possible to increase the confidence of the results.
In my personal experience, as well, going through high school and completing various lab reports, we were always told that the more results we had, the better. (Kim, 2017)
Hence, the more reliable a research paper is, the more likely it is that there will be consensus over the findings of that paper since information is used to back up hypotheses. Therefore, evidence plays a very significant role in the development of consensus.
This must be quite contrasting to the process of gathering knowledge in religious studies, am I right?
M: That is an interesting thought, and you’re right – the method by which we get knowledge in religious systems is very different from the scientific process because in this area of knowledge, and others such as History, the source of knowledge is primarily based on texts and scriptures that were originally written centuries, and in multiple different languages.
These texts were then translated and interpreted by different individuals from all over the world and over many, many years.
Do you see where the problem lies in this way of acquiring knowledge?
J: Yes, so what you’re saying is that the personal opinions and perceptions of those who translate and interpret the texts over generations have an incredible impact on the knowledge that is created. Hence, there is the issue of subjectivity and the fact that the meaning of the texts is open to interpretation.
That is quite interesting because, in fact, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis (Williams, n.d.), which is a part of linguistic relativity, can be applied in this case and it states that the cognitive behaviour of individuals is greatly impacted by the language that they use. In other words, people speaking different languages will have different perceptions of the world around them.
M: Exactly, and so although evidence is significant in religious knowledge systems, as most religions are based around some sort of a holy text or story, the process of gaining knowledge is quite dependent on the one who is studying and analyzing those pieces of evidence.
Therefore, in terms of consensus, I do not believe that evidence is the determining factor. Instead, it is the interpretation that is most favoured amongst the believers of that particular religion.
Wouldn’t you agree that even in the scientific process there exists subjectivity to some extent?
J: Definitely. This is what is known as research bias – where scientists performing the research influence the research in such a way that it portrays a certain outcome.
For example, research bias exists if there was an experimental error and the team failed to consider of all the possible variables.
Additionally, research bias (Shuttleworth, 2009) is more prominent while conducting qualitative research which, again, introduces the perception of the researcher and therefore their perception of the results might be different to that of others.
Therefore, although there is less subjectivity in the scientific process as quite a lot of research done is quantitative however, it is not possible to truly eliminate bias from research.
This idea of subjectivity just made me realise another question in relation to the claim made by my professor.
‘To what extent is robustness of knowledge proportional to consensus and/or disagreement?’
M: I’m glad you asked that because in the field of religious studies, I believe that consensus directly linked with the robustness of knowledge.
Firstly, as I mentioned before, the knowledge that is acquired is based on the interpretations of different individuals. However, the views that are generally agreed upon are religious scholars, priests, etc. Therefore, authority is based on interpretation which means that if one was to disagree, it could be seen as blasphemy and that idea or opinion would be dismissed almost immediately – this shows how disagreement would not necessarily work in making knowledge robust, in the religious context.
In addition, I believe that the consensus that forms amongst a group of people varies depending on the sect of religion or geographical location.
Let’s take Islam, for example, and their dress code for women – which is referred to as ‘The Rules of Modesty’. Although these rules are quite similar even amongst the various types of Muslims such as The Hanafis and The Imamis (Maghniyyah, n.d.), there is still relatively large difference in the type of clothing worn by women in Saudi Arabia when compared to those of another Islamic country, Indonesia.
This, once again, comes down to the subjectivity within religious studies and since authority is based on the interpretation, the robustness of knowledge is highly dependent on consensus.
What do you think is the case for scientific knowledge?
J: I believe that the opposite is true in Natural Sciences – I think that the robustness of knowledge is dependent on disagreement rather than consensus.
In the case of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, we can clearly see how the disagreement between two concepts enhanced the knowledge relating to physics. Newton, in 1687, stated the existence of gravity – he claimed that gravity was a constant and instantaneous force. However, in 1905, Einstein’s General Relativity showed that the effects of gravity were also actually dependent on the mass of the object, and said that space could be warped, bent, pushed, or pulled with changing mass. Also, Einstein, in the theory of Special Relativity, introduced space-time – adding time as a dimension which shows that large masses can also affect time by speeding it up or slowing it down (Essay: Newton vs. Einstein vs. the Next Wave, n.d.).
Therefore, through this example, it can be seen that the disagreement between two of the most prominent scientists, over several centuries, inspired Einstein to develop a more truthful depiction of the universe as a whole – increasing the robustness of knowledge.
M: That is very interesting. So, what are your final thoughts on the matter? Let’s see if I agree with you.
J: Overall, I believe that robust knowledge depends on both consensus and disagreement, depending on different fields of study. However, I believe that evidence is very important in making knowledge robust. For example, if we take the example of Schrödinger’s cat, the cat could either be dead or alive inside the box however, it is not known which and so according to this paradox, the cat is dead and alive at the same time – which makes no logical sense! Therefore, if 2 people were 2 decide which one of the options it would be, they could either agree and be content with their decision – making their knowledge robust. However, on the flip side, they could choose opposite options and therefore never come to a conclusion and so the factor that affects the robust nature knowledge the most is evidence, because once the box is removed, the 2 people will finally be able to know the truth and in that sense, be satisfied with the most robust knowledge possible.
M: I agree that both consensus and disagreement are required to produce robust knowledge. However, apart from evidence, I also believe that subjectivity allows for more exploration and creativity. In the case of Einstein himself, I don’t think he would have been able to come up with General Relativity had it not been creativity and the fact that he looked at the universe through a different lens.
J: That is very true! I hope, in the coming months, we have conversations just like this.
M: I hope so too!