Community Consensus

Last Thursday I shared a slow Persian dinner with Kim Alexander. I was lucky it was a slow dinner—not just because they’re my favorite sort—but also because it was an hour before my fairy godmother (she flicks a wand at my social-flounder-fest and appears the caring/curious/safe-to-attempt-to-talk-in-ways-people-understand me) showed up. Before Her Sparkliness finally graced us with her presence, Kim asked about my work… and I started talking about citations in much the odd-ball way I have in the past couple of days.

By some miracle, she got it. And she showed me that she got it by pointing to a stream of memes like this:

The point, she explained, is about community consensus. Community consensus is how we’re able to make a joke… and why we’re sometimes unable to get it.

Most of us talk about water or even H20… but not about dihydrogen monoxide. When we encounter ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ we assume it’s some sort of chemical compound. But some of us talk about dihydrogen monoxide… or know how to talk with people who do… and that makes memes like this one funny: water rusts pipes, but most of the time it does more good than harm to human insides.

Community consensus (how we talk with the people around us & how they talk with us) makes the meme funny: if you, like the meme-maker, participate in communities where dihydrogen monoxide is water, you see that the meme is absurd. And community consensus makes the meme (for some people) puzzling: if you don’t run in those communities or talk with people who do, you might be worried about drinking this rust-producing chemical… and wonder why someone would make the meme… or think it funny.

Community Consensus & Reliability

Community consensus, Kim suggested, also makes a passage or an observation or a bit of information count as evidence that something is true (reliable).

Here’s an example: you probably know the legend in which Isaac Newton gets hit by a falling apple & discovers gravity. (Perhaps you’re even familiar with the version where he observes a falling apple, thinks for a while, and posits that gravity is universal.)

Before Newton’s discovery, lots of people had seen apples falling… and some had even been bopped on the head. As the legend has it, Newton saw the falling apple as evidence that gravity (was a universal force).

But before Newton saw it that way—and for several years after—community consensus was that falling apples weren’t evidence for gravity… or at least for his theory that gravity is a universal force. That’s why we say that Newton had a discovery: he talked about falling apples in a way that didn’t mesh with common sense. He talked about falling apples as clues (evidence) that universal gravitation is a reliable theory.

For most of us, community consensus is that falling apples & falling balls are evidence of gravity. Discoveries like Newton’s show us that we tend to rely on community consensus to discern what is reliable and what is not. We tend to rely on community consensus to discern if there are good reasons to affirm something or not. So if I said that falling apples aren’t evidence of gravity, but evidence of apple-throwing-tree-fairies, you’d probably doubt it.

Community Consensus & Citations

Schools teach us to cite for lots of reasons. One is plagiarism. Teachers say that if you represent an idea that you read or heard somewhere else, you ought to “give them credit,” and you give credit by citing. Another reason teachers ask us to cite is to give evidence. If you’re arguing that blindness is a uniting trope in Oedipus Rex, you have to give evidence—to quote passages about blindness and say where someone else can find those passages.

If you got a high mark on the Oedipus essay, it’s probably safe to say that you & your teacher shared some sense that the passages you quoted and cited really do support your claim that blindness is a uniting trope. But there’s no place in Oedipus Rex that says “blindness is a uniting trope—you can see these here, here, here, and here,” so you and your teacher are arguably sharing a kind of community consensus about what counts as evidence. You probably share a community consensus that blindness is a uniting trope, too. But they’re two different things.

Let me explain. Suppose you argued that blindness is a uniting trope but you didn’t get a high mark. Odds are good that your teacher thinks “blindness is a uniting trope” is reliable. It’s a true statement about Oedipus Rex. But if the passages you quoted and cited didn’t strike your teacher as evidence for the claim (i.e., as observations that sway you to think that blindness is a uniting trope in Oedipus Rex), odds are good you didn’t get a high mark, because the high marks go to essays that include the sort of evidence that your teacher thinks support your claim.

The evidence you gave might support the claim—but your teacher isn’t trying to teach you to support the claim in just any way: she’s trying to teach you to support the community consensus claim (blindness is a uniting trope) in the community consensus ways (quoting and citing passages about the blind seer, about Oedipus’ clawing his eyes out, etc.), using a community consensus about what counts as evidence that makes something reliable.

Community Consensus-es-es-es

There are lots of different community consensuses about what counts as evidence that some idea is reliable. If you quoted a letter from Isaac Newton in a physics lab instead of describing what you observed or showing your mathematical calculations, you’d probably get a low mark. What counts as evidence in a physics class doesn’t count as evidence in a history class or an English class. The community consensus there is different.

But here’s the curious thing about community consensus: it’s almost invisible until something goes sideways. We learn about our community consensuses & about others’ when we bump into one another — when we make a mistake or someone else makes a mistake… or when we get a low mark… or when we say or hear something that isn’t what we (or someone else) intended.

So the memes tell us something about our default “community consensus.” If we thought it instantly funny, our default community is probably one in which ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ is water. If we had to think about what ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ was… then found it funny, our default community isn’t one in which ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ is water… but we’re familiar (able to talk to people in) communities where it is… and we’re also familiar with communities in which ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ is a foreign chemical concoction.

But more importantly, the memes make something go sideways: they make several community consensuses visible as such.

Citations & Community Consensus-es

Citations tend to look the same. Even before we had familiar style guides (e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago), authors & editors & publishers used citation-annotation systems to make them look the same. But the community consensus about how a cited supports a claim isn’t necessarily always the same. For example, I might cite philological evidence (e.g., the history of a word and its uses in ancient works) that blindness is a uniting trope in Oedipus Rex in paragraph three, and internal evidence (the patterns of Sophocles words, figures, etc.) in paragraph four. But the community consensuses about what counts as convincing evidence in philological arguments and internal/literary arguments may not be exactly the same.

So What?

When we read, it’s sometimes helpful to ask about the community consensus(es) that an author draws on. If there is more than one, it’s helpful to ask how the author thinks different community consensuses can be reliably combined. For example: how can (how do) philological and literary evidences both support the same conclusion? If it’s composed of several kinds of argumentation, what kind of argument (and community consensus) supports the conclusion?