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The definition of robust knowledge varies depending on the context in which it is produced. However, in most cases, it can be defined as knowledge which is able to withstand criticism and still be perceived as true. In the natural sciences, the definition of robust knowledge can also include being accepted by the vast majority of experts. The ability to stand the test of time is less relevant in this area as we are rarely certain that knowledge we produce is true due to undiscovered evidence or technology. In the arts, however, robust knowledge depends much more on the number of people who can understand (but not necessarily agree with) elements of the human experience which are portrayed. In this essay, it will be shown that the role of consensus and disagreement in producing robust knowledge differs based on the context in which it is produced and the way an audience understands the message by examining the natural sciences and the arts.
In the natural sciences, consensus allows us to have confidence in our results. Disagreement provides grounds for new research to take place and can therefore lead to scientific progress. If knowledge produced within the sciences can withstand criticism and is accepted by experts in that field, that knowledge is regarded as more robust. However, it could be argued that consensus actually harms scientific progress.
If we assume all knowledge in the sciences is imperfect (as there is always potential for more depth of research and new knowledge to be discovered), then challenging our current assumptions will provide incentive to research further.Some problems arise when we assume that robust knowledge occurs only when the majority of experts agree with it. In the early 1900s, the disease pellagra was responsible for thousands of deaths in the United States. Most scientists considered it to be an infectious disease. However, Joseph Goldberger, a physician assigned to study the disease, hypothesized that it was a result of poor diet. Despite many experiments supporting his theory, many scientists still rejected it.
It was later discovered that Goldberger was correct, showing how consensus on an incorrect theory can harm scientific advancement. However, was the false theory still robust knowledge? Due to our definition of robust knowledge in this context, it could be argued that it was because the majority of experts in that field still believed it, and the test of time is not as applicable as scientific knowledge always has the potential to change over time. Therefore, it is possible for robust knowledge to be at odds with scientific advancement if there is fixation on an outdated idea.
It is worth noting that this is quite a specific example, and that occurrences like this are quite rare. The idea, however, could be generalized by stating that consensus and fixation on a false theory may slow scientific progress, but robust knowledge is still produced because it is still believed by a large number of experts.One of the reasons why this false theory was still accepted by the majority of the population was because there is a stronger reason to trust experts who agree with something. We assume that because a large number of experts agree with a particular conclusion, that conclusion is true.
On the other hand, when there are many disagreements between experts in a field, their perceived authority could be lost, which could potentially decrease the production of robust knowledge as the value of their opinion comes into question. We can therefore conclude that a large amount of disagreement could actually hinder the production of robust knowledge (as one of the main characteristics of our definition of robust knowledge is that a vast number of experts agree with a conclusion).