The title, at first, seems ambiguous as it uses words that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Knowledge is usually thought to be proven facts and information that have been gained through experience or education. When knowledge is robust, it can be said to hold up to scrutiny. But saying that knowledge is robust is like saying that facts hold up to scrutiny. It is almost claiming the obvious. This is known as a tautology, when the same thing is said in different words. Therefore, the question is; can knowledge ever not be robust? This comes down to the definition of ‘robust’. If we take the word to mean something that holds up to scrutiny, it would mean that knowledge can be robust. This already suggests that both consensus and disagreement are required to produce robust knowledge as the definition states that scrutiny is needed to produce robust knowledge. For this essay, I will take ‘requires’ to mean to be produced as in this way we can find examples where only either consensus or disagreement is needed to produce robust knowledge. In this essay, therefore, I will seek to demonstrate that there are cases in which only consensus or disagreement is needed to produce robust knowledge arriving at the conclusion that the absolute claim in the argument in the title is only sometimes right and not as clear cut as it implies. I will do that by looking at knowledge in history and in science and by comparing the two.

 

The first way of looking at the question is to examine cases in which both consensus and disagreement are required to produce robust knowledge. In history consensus and disagreement are most apparent when looking at different paradigms. Often the consensus comes from the facts – the overview is agreed on, including dates and locations – but the disagreement comes from the perspective – certain facts could be viewed in a different way. For example, in history we learnt about ‘Bloody Sunday’ that took place in Russia on 22 January 1905 (interestingly the new and old styles of calendar conventions mean that sometimes the date is recorded as January 9th, making us question these “facts” themselvesET1 ). There is consensus on the date but disagreement on the viewpoint. These different viewpoints are known as paradigms. Paradigms are a “set of interrelated ideas for making sense of one or more aspects of reality1”. They are a way of viewing the world from different angles. With regards to history and the Bloody Sunday, a paradigm might mean looking at the causes of the event from an economic, social or political perspective. A person subscribing to one of these paradigms could think that theirs is the right one. These three paradigms are three completely different ways of looking at the same event, and on the face of it, it seems that the differences in the interpretation could not produce robust knowledge. These paradigms in different communities however, produce individual strands of robust knowledge even though they do not produce knowledge that is robust overall. In the case of ‘Bloody Sunday’ the social paradigm that would examine the impact of a famine in making people more desperate and ready to protest against the tsarist regime holds up to scrutiny it can be acknowledged that social issues played a part in the events of 1905. But the fact that there are other paradigms that would look at the political or economic conditions in Russia mean that there are multiple strands of knowledge that hold up to scrutiny. Therefore, there is consensus on the facts and disagreement on the whole picture, which produces robust knowledge on a smaller level as each ‘community’ tries to explain the whole picture using a different paradigm.

In science, robust knowledge being produced from both consensus and disagreement is equally possible. In science, it seems that the inverse is true. Often there is agreement on the interpretation but disagreement on the facts. This is illustrated by the theories that try to explain the creation of the universe. There is consensus about the interpretation that the universe was created around 14 billion years ago. This is an interpretation because the facts are unclear. The disagreement comes from these unclear facts. Scientists would argue that the Big Bang is what created the universe but others would take a religious view. But the interpretation that the universe was created at some point hold true. ET2 An example where both consensus and disagreement produce robust knowledge in science paradigm shifts. A paradigm shift is a “time when the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely2”. An example of this would be the shift in the theories about evolution from a goal-directed change to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. A shift like this usually produces consensus over the fact that there is disagreement about the old way of thinking. Almost by definition, the acceptance of a paradigm shift means that there is consensus and agreement on the claim that the old paradigm is false or no longer applicable. In this way, robust knowledge comes from both consensus and disagreement. The idea of falsification could also produce robust knowledge through consensus and disagreement when looking at the example of evolution. Falsification is based on the idea that if something can be proved incorrect, it cannot be true. Applying this to evolution, one could say that if evolution could be proved to be false, it must be false. In this way, knowledge that stands up to scrutiny can be formed through consensus and disagreement as in the case of evolution it has been able to stand up to scrutiny.

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The second line of argument when answering the question states that only consensus or disagreement is needed to produce robust knowledge. It cannot be said that only disagreement is needed to produce robust knowledge, as it would be contradictory. It would not be robust knowledge if there was only disagreement about it. Therefore, it is more likely that sometimes only agreement is needed to produce robust knowledge. In history, this would come about with basic facts. These sorts of facts would be the dates and locations of events for example. It can be agreed on by everyone that the French Revolution started in the year 1789. It can also be agreed on by everyone that the storming of the Bastille took place on 14 July 1789. It can be argued that this is robust knowledge as it holds up to scrutiny. It would be difficult to challenge this information. However, the value of this knowledge might be less as these are only basic facts. Arguably, the purpose of history is to put together facts to explain events. These basic facts only need consensus to be called robust, but it can be argued that ‘history’ as a concept comes from the disagreements in the different interpretation of events and facts. This would suggest that it is possible to produce robust knowledge only through consensus in history, but to what extent this produces any meaningful knowledge can be questioned.

 

In science, it can be harder to argue that robust knowledge is produced only through agreement, as the idea of falsification is prominent in the scientific community. One of the cases in which agreement seems to produce robust knowledge is when scientific experiments are conducted and repeated. Inductive reasoning is when the “premises are viewed as supplying strong evidence for the truth of the conclusion3”. While in deductive reasoning the conclusion is certain, in inductive reasoning it is only probable. This relates to repeating scientific experiments and in particular the anomalies that they produce. When anomalies are disregarded when conducting scientific experiments, the potential disagreements are ignored. This means that the conclusion is only probable. This is a way in which it seems that robust knowledge is being tried to produce through agreement but fails due to the presence of these rejected anomalies and disagreements. This would suggest that through only agreement it is not possible to produce robust scientific knowledge.

 

Overall, it seems that more often than not both consensus and disagreement are needed to produce robust knowledge that stands up to scrutiny. Certainly, in the field of science both are usually needed. Even though sometimes scientists try to produce knowledge through only consensus by rejecting the possible anomalies and disagreements this fails in producing knowledge that stands up to scrutiny. In history only agreement can produce robust knowledge, for instance in the case of dates or locations, but history becomes ‘history’ when these facts and figures are looked at in different ways to produce different interpretations. Having multiple interpretations that account for almost all the possibilities gives an overview of the whole picture that could be called robust. With regards to the question, subscribing to the idea of falsification means that as there is at least one example when it is not necessary to have both consensus and disagreement to produce robust knowledge, the claim in the title is false. It is true that more often than not both are needed, but when there is at least one example where this is not the case, it cannot be said that the claim in the title is valid.

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