On the Tyranny of the Majority

Large Language Models (LLMs) predict the statistically most probable word when they generate texts. The fact that the predicted word or sentence is the most probable does on the one hand not mean that it is true or false. On the other hand, the prediction of probabilities leads to a favouring of the majority opinion. If one word combination appears significantly more frequently than the other in the training data set, it is favoured by the LLM; and also if the annotators assign a certain label more frequently than another, the more frequently assigned label is favoured and that of the minority opinion is suppressed. This “tyranny of the majority” has consequences for at least two important areas of society: For science and culture.

If we consider how Thomas Kuhn conceptualises the “structure of scientific revolutions” and Pierre Bourdieu the renewal of cultural fields, it becomes evident that every new scientific paradigm and every artistic avant-garde movement represents a minority opinion, at least initially. There is a dominant majority opinion, which Kuhn describes as paradigmatic “normal science” and Bourdieu as the “orthodox” conception of art. These social groups form the dominant pole in their respective fields and are challenged in a competition by a “revolutionary” (Kuhn) or “heretical” (Bourdieu) position. The representatives of the dominant opinion often react negatively to this opposition: “Normal science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.” (Kuhn, Structure, p.5). What follows is, sociologically speaking, a struggle for recognition, a fight for the rejection of an older scientific or artistic paradigm and the introduction of a new one.

The trial of strength between the different groups of scientists or artists can lead to different results. For example, the new paradigm completely replaces the old one and assumes a dominant position in the field itself. This happened, e.g., in the study of syphilis when pathogens were identified for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century. Another possibility is that two different scientific paradigms (or schools of art) can coexist, such as Newtonian and Einsteinian mechanics; the decisive factor here is that both have a different frame of reference that is mutually exclusive (just as scientists often first have to develop a new ‘school of seeing’ and collect new data). Still another possibility is that two different paradigms exist side by side without the majority ratios changing. This is the case, for example, with the different interpretations of quantum mechanics: the stochastic or Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics forms the majority opinion, while the deterministic or Bohmian theory represents a minority opinion. In the field of art, one can think of the overcoming of tonality and the development of the twelve-tone technique by avant-gardists such as Arnold Schönberg and Alban Berg. Although this technique was later taken up, it did not develop into the dominant method and never really became suitable for the masses (while tonality is still decisive for the majority of consumers today). Max Planck once commented ironically on the longevity of outdated scientific paradigms and their representatives with the words: “Science progresses with one funeral at a time.

The way in which Kuhn and Bourdieu conceptualise the processes of renewal in the fields of science and culture focuses primarily on the social processes associated with scientific or artistic revolutions. With regard to LLMs and the hopes associated with artificial general intelligence (AGI), this is instructive: due to its design, such ‘intelligence’ tends to repeat the majority opinion and thus to repeat the dominant paradigm (field of science) or it tends towards the commonplace, cliché, banal and inauthentic (field of art). This does not mean that intelligent machines cannot be used to create new paradigms. But they will not do so ‘by themselves’. Rather, it is clear that we have to view the seemingly overpowering AIs in the wider context of a socio-technical system in which humans still play a central role as agents – even if they are in the minority.

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