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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.

Austin2010 young woman listeningFurthermore, 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, agreements 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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Tom Atlee
Awed by the evolutionary challenges and opportunities we face as a civilization, Tom Atlee researches and promotes dialogue, deliberation, and other resources for collective intelligence and conscious evolution. Tom founded The Co-Intelligence Institute in 1996 and wrote The Tao of Democracy in 2003.

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  1. John Backman says:

    Hello, Tom…I can’t help but think that you are on to something extremely important here–and you have articulated it in a way that enables the rest of us to wrestle meaningfully with the concepts involved. Well done.

    What strikes me immediately is the daunting gap between these necessary ideas and the conditions of life “on the ground”: so much of our culture (at least from what I see) has not even moved from public opinion into public judgment, let alone public wisdom. It could potentially take a lot of time to effect this mindshift on any kind of scale. How do you square that reality (if accurate) with your (undoubtedly necessary) call for urgency?

  2. Alan Stewart says:

    G’day Tom

    Here are two interrelated issues which, in my opinion, are crying out for the public participation you indicate could lead to public wisdom.

    1. Carbon pricing

    This is the main mechanism for the thriving of the human species, according to James Hansen.

    Climate change is here and worse than we thought. By James E. Hansen, Published: August 4 2012

    (George Monbiot touches on this in his recent article ‘Hunger Games’
    http://www.monbiot.com/2012/08/13/hunger-games/ )

    The concluding para:

    “There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate, but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.”

    The future is now. And it is hot. © The Washington Post Company

    2. The Great Transition – Report from the Future by Paul Raskin

    Paul is the head of the Great Transition Initiative (GTI) based in Boston. I am a longstanding Participant and visited him at his office a couple of years ago.

    I have excerpted this – and slightly adapted it – from his most readable and illuminating essay:

    ‘Participation in healing the planet becoming a great source of pride for the global citizenry is the hope for the future of our species, and the ecosystems of which we are a part.’

    Is it to draw a long bow in suggesting that proceeds from carbon pricing be a source of funding to promote the ‘massive participation’ in ‘co-creating an innovative and robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs?’

    This seems an opportunity for strong leadership at every level of society, from international to neighborhood, to bring to the fore through the participatory processes you indicated, that “We’re all we, although some of us don’t know it yet.”
    Jeff Schwartz via Tom Atlee

    And that ‘We are all in this together.’

    Is there an alternative? And is there urgency to do this??

    Looking forward

    Go well

    Alan Stewart

  3. Tom Atlee says:

    John and Alan:

    I appreciate you both living into the urgency of my message – and my suggestion that it will take real WISDOM to navigate “the rapids of change”.

    The intention of my essay was less to prescribe a particular method or approach – although I have my own ideas about what would serve this purpose – as to raise energy within NCDD to recalibrate our attention to the generation of public wisdom. Most of us are focused elsewhere – on public engagement, deliberative democracy, community revitalization, organization development and transformation, social justice, conflict resolution, and so on.

    These are all truly vital enterprises. However, the crises we face – climate chaos, economic collapse, peak resources, and so on – are so humongous and growing so rapidly that, as they evolve to tsunamic proportions, they both exacerbate and eclipse all the other issues in society.

    Just for example, as is implicit in your comment, Alan, when climate change deprives billions of people of fresh water (now supplied by glaciers that are disappearing and rains cut off by drought), we shall see a level of suffering, social injustice and unrest, and ecological destruction unknown to modern humanity. (And, Alan, while I totally agree with carbon pricing as a policy, that is a SOLUTION, not a wisdom-generating PROCESS. I fear that if we keep focusing on issues and solutions, we won’t ever develop the democratic processes that will allow us to collectively generate wise solutions – including significant systems change – on an ongoing basis. And that would be tragic.)

    When things get really bad, society tends to experience increasing dynamic tension between force (violence and oppression) and wisdom (deep understanding, compassion and prudence). My own imagination sees these manifesting in society as fascism (or warlordism) and wise democracy.

    A democracy capable of generating true wisdom – decision-makers taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long term broad benefit – cannot be created overnight. However, if we truly set aside other agendas, ideologies, and turf defensiveness to pursue the inquiry into what it would ACTUALLY take to create that democracy, I think a lot of very do-able answers would surface rather quickly. My new book EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM is an attempt to provide a context and some ideas for that inquiry. But it is the SHARED INQUIRY that is most urgent and important.

    I believe that at least half of the expertise needed to catalyze such a democracy exists in NCDD today. The only missing ingredients are (a) the realization of its importance and urgency; (b) the understanding that, though complex, this goal is totally possible to achieve; and then (c) the determination to make it happen together, each of us offering our gifts to the undertaking.

    True, John, the conditions and consciousness “on the ground” do not seem conducive to this work. There may be a slim chance of it actually happening. But to me it is SO clearly SO vital – even necessary for the survival of civilization – that it is worth trying to call forth that “small dedicated group” that Margaret Meade so quotably insisted “could change the world.” I’m doing my part as best as this limited soul can manage. What energies would you like to add to it?


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