The Bitcoin consensus problem: Scientific truths cannot be decided by popular opinion or the free market

Bitcoin has a problem.

It used to be a geeky niché interest: a technical curiosity that only a handful intellectuals could understand, accompanied by libertarian groupies who swooned over its promise. This was an optimistic time, a community of people with different backgrounds, but one common cause.

Back then, people who didn’t understand the technology would allow those that did to get on with building it, their judgement was trusted implicitly.

Then the world’s media took notice. After becoming household name, millions jumped on the bandwagon, Bitcoin became popular.

With popularity comes problems: popular opinion is not always right.

The previous arrangement that the lead team of developers are trusted to make technical decisions is being altered. People with no technical understanding are demanding solutions which the technically minded have great concerns about.

The biggest issue revolves around the block size debate. The Core team of developers believe, amongst other things, that increasing the block size limit now through a hard fork is risky because:

  1. Without optimisations the great firewall of China could struggle to pass larger blocks quickly enough which could lead greater centralisation, undermining a basic principle of Bitcoin: its decentralised nature.
  2. Its not as simple as fixing ‘one line’ of code as has been suggested. Without additional work there are malicious transactions which could harm the network by alone taking over 10 minutes to verify in larger sized blocks.
  3. A hard fork is inherently risky and should only be used when absolutely necessary, which right now they don’t believe it is.

The Core team of developers has decided instead to pursue other more technically complex solutions which they believe will solve the scaling problem in the best long term interests of Bitcoin. Everybody is in agreement that Bitcoin needs to scale.

This has been countered by various alternative solutions by developers who have not demonstrated the same technical skill, but have shown themselves better equipped at engaging and appeasing the masses.

Let’s consider what that means. Imagine you’re starting to feel ill. You go to the doctor who tells you not to worry as there is a pill that will leave you feeling a little unwell in the short term, but to take it easy for a few weeks and before long you’ll be feeling better than ever.

Outside the doctors surgery is a stall set up with a crowd of people who have been whipped up into a frenzy hailing a miracle cure that will make everything better. The doctor warned you about this, and said that the cure offered might make some of your symptoms disappear in the short term, but in the long term it could cause serious and irreversible damage to your health and we cannot yet be certain of the side effects.

At the moment, the Bitcoin community looks like it is heading towards the latter option, ignoring the advice of the people who have delivered near perfect health to the network for the last 7 years.

Scientific truths cannot be determined by consensus.  If bigger blocks do slow down block propagation and jeopardise the integrity of Bitcoin, it doesn’t matter if 100% of users think that it won’t.

Ultimately, yes, there are very capable people who think the block size can be safely increased. However while popular opinion consensus is very easy to measure, it is almost impossible to measure intellectual consensus.

The Core developers are the only people with a proven track record. This means, for me, they represent scientific consensus. Deviating away from their leadership leads us into uncharted waters. This dispute is about more than a tiny change of code, it’s about the direction of Bitcoin, and whether scientific consensus can be superseded by the free market.

If you are concerned that full blocks will cause the network to struggle, and a temporary fee market to form that will have a major impact, why not give the core team a chance to prove you right? Bitcoin is still experimental, temporarily seeing how it performs at the limits of capacity could provide very useful lessons for the future. If the network does start to struggle, intellectual consensus will form very quickly around increasing the block size, but it is not there yet, despite all the debate.

Sadly, I feel like a block size increase against the wishes of the Core developers is increasingly inevitable. I don’t actually think this block size increase will cause measurable harm in the short term. The harm comes further down the line once the precedent has been set, and empowered by being “proven right on the block size debate”, the masses demand further compromises of an inexperienced team of developers willing to please.


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John Hardy

Software developer living in UK.
Longtime Bitcoin advocate.
Email [email protected]
Donations welcome: 1H2zNWjxkaVeeE3yX6uVqng5Qoi6gGvYTE
John Hardy
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Author: John Hardy

Software developer living in UK. Longtime Bitcoin advocate. Email [email protected] Donations welcome: 1H2zNWjxkaVeeE3yX6uVqng5Qoi6gGvYTE

4 thoughts on “The Bitcoin consensus problem: Scientific truths cannot be decided by popular opinion or the free market”

  1. The core of your argument can be summarized as an “appeal to authority”, a logical fallacy. In this case it’s not persuasive even as a rhetorical device. The snake oil salesmen in your metaphor would be Gavin Andresen, Jeff Garzik and Mike Hearn. Counterbalance those with Adam Back, Greg Maxwell and Bram Cohen. Clearly there are respected authorities on both sides, better to focus on the substance of the arguments than the status of those making them.
    Is it possible that there is merit in both positions?
    One man’s mob rule is another man’s democracy. One man’s panel of experts is another man’s cadre of arrogant despots.

    1. It is possible that there is merit in both positions, just that it is impossible for the masses to objectively compare. Therefore, the team which has so far delivered a secure and reliable network over 7 years should be given priority to carry out their plan by the masses, they have done enough to earn our trust.

    2. I don’t think you can say Mike Hearn and respected authority in the same sentence, unless you’re trying to troll.

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