Public opinion, public judgment, and public wisdom

Pollsters, politicians and pundits quote public opinion polls to tell us what the public thinks. Deliberative democracy advocates promote public judgment to deepen public opinion. Few people talk about public wisdom – what it could be and what it could do.

I think we need all three forms of public sensibility. I think we can make useful distinctions between them. I believe we need to be particularly clear and creative about public wisdom. We need real wisdom to guide us through the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century. I think we can generate that wisdom democratically.


We all have opinions. Whether or not our beliefs are well founded, we believe things are right or wrong, good or bad, realistic or impractical.

Opinions can be regarded as “judgments” to the extent we have intelligently thought about them – worked through them – considered facts and arguments, our values and feelings, possible consequences, and so on. Our considered judgments tend to be fairly stable and we can explain them to other people when asked. And when our thoughtfulness produces views that work out well in real life, we gain a reputation for “sound judgment”.

There are different varieties of thoughtfulness. What kind do we use to consider our beliefs? Are we clever and smart? Are we brilliant and insightful? Are we wise?

I’ll use the words “clever” and “smart” to mean we are quick at solving problems and thinking things through, but may be limited or self-centered in how we do that. “Brilliant” and “insightful” suggest we see linkages and patterns that others miss, making creative leaps that produce original, elegant solutions and perspectives. “Wise” goes further, suggesting we take into account what’s needed for deep understanding and for solutions that are well-grounded, broadly beneficial and lasting.

Wisdom tends to involve deep, broad, often subtle and empathic awareness arising from experience and reflection about what happens in life, often incorporating insights into underlying dynamics at work in the world. Judgments that are wise arise from thoughtfully considering a wider range of needs and realities than are commonly attended to or obviously demanded by immediate situations.


In his 2010 book with Will Friedman, TOWARD WISER PUBLIC JUDGMENT, public opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich points out that public officials, pundits, media and the public tend to pay too much attention to public opinion polls without distinguishing shallow, inconsistent and passing opinions from more stable, well-considered opinions that constitute public judgment.

Furthermore, Yankelovich and Friedman note that our society does not provide very many institutions to support the public coming to considered judgment. In fact, politicians, pundits and media tend to promote poorly considered positioning through a mix of spin, contradictory factoids and confusing expert analysis. They should instead be promoting the values-driven, emotion-laden process of “working-through” an issue.

Too many people believe that what the public needs is more information. Although the right information is important, Yankelovich and Friedman have found that what citizens mostly need are opportunities to really hear each other and do substantive “choice-work” so they can “fully grasp – and accept – the consequences of their views.”

This theory and practice of “coming to public judgment” are fundamental threads in the deliberative democracy movement. In its current forms, this approach does not seek consensus so much as “to illuminate why people support certain courses of action and what their reservations and main concerns are.” It seeks to deepen public understanding and to build a legitimate role for the “deliberative public as setting the terms within which policy makers should operate.”


To this vital vision of the role of the public in democratic decision-making, I want to add two possibilities:

1. The possibility of consensus: I am not speaking here of fabricated, pressured or manipulated agreement. I am noting that the more inclusive and natural a deeply felt agreement is – the more it addresses the concerns of all involved – the more wisdom it will likely contain.

I see evidence that certain processes have a capacity to generate what Rosa Zubizarreta has called “creative consensus without compromise” – collective exploration into deeper insight and greater creativity towards unforeseen positive possibilities. When we can do this, we move beyond choosing the best option from limited choices, weaving agreements from threads of concession, or seeking only shared understanding of our differences. While these latter options are worthy goals in their own right, why settle just for them when we may be able to accomplish much more?

It is possible for diverse ordinary people to come up with policy recommendations which all or almost all of them see as desirable. This demonstrable fact evokes the possibility of a coherent voice of We the People powerfully present in political decision-making. Such a voice is only truly legitimate to the extent that the full spectrum of public perspectives is clearly included and fairly considered in the consensus-seeking conversation. Citizens observing that conversation would need to know that what they, themselves, think and feel was seriously considered in it, and that the result was clearly “common” sense. There are numerous ways to achieve that – ranging from random selection to civic journalism to multiple-viewpoint drama – and to make that collective voice influential in our democratic life.

2. The possibility of public wisdom: Public wisdom would not be something distinct from public judgment. It would be, rather, an expansion of public judgment to include more of what needs to be taken into account for broad, long-term benefit. It would include not just diverse people stretching into each other’s viewpoints – the essential starting point of public deliberation – but stretching into such realms as

  • deep moral and ethical quandaries;
  • physical, social and ecological system dynamics;
  • human and natural history alive in the present;
  • complexity, uncertainty, and mystery; 
  • scenario thinking beyond borders and into future generations;
  • the insights of ancient cultures and traditions; and
  • our profound common earthly humanity. 

It would involve stretching into all these together on behalf of our communities and our grandchildren.

In seeking public wisdom we expand our search for understanding and acceptance of trade-offs. We deepen both our understanding of what’s at stake and our ability to creatively transcend many trade-offs. Efforts to generate public wisdom engage us in wrestling more thoroughly and creatively with what is fair, righteous, and sustainable. Much of what we already know about deliberation and choice-creating can help us do that. Further research, development, and action could enable us to do it even better.


Today we are confronted with extreme climate change and environmental degradation, deeply systemic economic disruptions, profound wealth disparities and concentrations of social power, the unchecked development and spread of dangerous technologies, the limits of growth, resource depletion and pollution, and countless other emerging challenges and crises. Under the circumstances, it seems both reasonable and urgent to promote our collective ability to deepen creatively into these challenges and emerge with coherent wisdom about how to meet them well.

Society needs the capacity to self-organize in diverse, coordinated, successful and sensible ways locally on the ground. We have numerous effective methods and initiatives that further that. Society also needs the capacity to generate wise coherence in the form of whole-community, whole-society, and whole-world policies, programs, agreemen
and resource allocation. This latter capacity is where we are weak.

We are assaulted by evidence that current forms of democracy have (to put it mildly) limited capacity for generating collective wisdom. I propose that those of us in the fields of dialogue, deliberation, powerful conversation, knowledge systems, online collaboration, public engagement, political action and collective intelligence and wisdom have a responsibility to help correct that lack as soon as we can. We already have many tools, methods, and understandings to work with. We need more. Working together with a focus on generating collective wisdom, we can learn our way together into the kind of legitimate, powerful forms of public wisdom our world needs now.

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