Consensus is the real inconvenient truth

The same weapons used by Microsoft against open source are being deployed by politicians, businesses and interest groups against the demands of consensus on policy. Thus it is that computing, business, economics and politics share a single inconvenient truth.

Al Gore 2006
It is the movement of consensus from the worlds of science, engineering and business into the political world which is the great theme of our time.

For a generation now American politics has been ruled by narrow majorities, winner take all. Most political reporters cannot conceive of any other way for our system to work.

But through most of our history America has been a country driven by consensus. The Constitution itself is designed to frustrate short-term, narrow majorities, the Senate's membership changing slowly, the courts' glacially, and each branch exerting checks and balances against the others.

Consensus has constantly calmed what conflict began. We now have a consensus against slavery, a consensus against unregulated monopoly, a consensus on behalf of civil rights. It was consensus that won World War II, the consensus of the Greatest Generation.

Consensus is making a big comeback.  

The scientific method is driven by consensus, and the resistance to consensus can be seen easily in opposition to ideas like global warming and evolution when they enter the political sphere.

In some ways it's amusing watching opponents trot out those figures who stand outside the scientific consensus, or demanding a "vote" on the two "competing" ideas, as though this would overthrow science.

But this has its destructive side. Using political methods against scientific consensus leads many to misunderstand the whole basis of consensus, or the process under which a consensus is reached. The result is ignorance.

Consensus is not the work of a narrow majority, and it's not subject to political refutation. You can only meet consensus on its own ground, in the laboratory or the marketplace. You can only argue away the whole idea of consensus, and in the process leave people without science, and its benefits.

So just as the consensus process is overtaking proprietary models of progress, through the Internet and open source, we're seeing the notion of consensus re-enter the public sphere.

The same weapons used by Microsoft against open source are being deployed by politicians, businesses and interest groups against the demands of consensus on policy. Thus it is that computing, business, economics and politics share a single inconvenient truth.