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What’s so Good about a Wise and Knowledgeable Public?


Philosophers have been concerned for some time with the epistemic caliber of the general public, qua the body that is, ultimately, tasked with political decision-making in democratic societies. Unfortunately, the empirical data paint a pretty dismal picture here, indicating that the public tends to be largely ignorant on the issues relevant to governance. To make matters worse, empirical research on how ignorance tends to breed overconfidence suggests that the public will not only lack knowledge on the relevant issues, but also wisdom, in the Socratic sense of an awareness of your ignorance. While increasing the knowledge and wisdom of the public might be thought an obvious remedy, there is, as far as sound political decision-making and action are concerned, nothing particularly valuable about knowledge or wisdom per se. In fact, it might just be that what the public needs is nothing but the most basic epistemic good: true belief.

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  1. 1.

    See Taylor (1989) for an overview, as well as Pronin et al. (2002) and Sieck and Arkes (2005) on overconfidence specifically regarding our intellectual capacities.

  2. 2.

    See, e.g., Kruger and Dunning (1999); Dunning et al. (2003); and Ehrlinger et al. (2008).

  3. 3.

    All translations of Plato are from Cooper (1997).

  4. 4.

    At least if we assume some form of meta-ethical non-cognitivism.

  5. 5.

    By “knowledge,” I do not (and will not) mean weak knowledge, i.e., the kind of knowledge that can be considered identical with mere true belief. However, see Goldman and Olsson (2009), and Sartwell (1992).

  6. 6.

    See Sieck and Arkes (2005) for a discussion.

  7. 7.

    While these are possible responses, I do not want to claim that they are the only possible responses, although they strike me as the two that are most relevant for present purposes.

  8. 8.

    It might be suggested that the Socratic notion designates a kind of knowledge, namely second-order knowledge about what you know. However, nothing about that notion commits us to understanding the relevant second-order attitude as one of knowledge, as opposed to one of justified belief, or even simply true belief.

  9. 9.

    All translations of Descartes are from Cottingham et al. (1985).

  10. 10.

    All translations of Aristotle are from Broadie and Rowe (2002).

  11. 11.

    See Haddock et al. (2009) for a recent collection of essays.

  12. 12.

    Hence, in his overview of the relevant debates, Pritchard (2007) takes what he refers to as the primary value problem to be how to explain why we value knowledge more than mere true belief, even in the absence of a practical surplus value.

  13. 13.

    Here and henceforth, I will not take ‘persuasive’ to be a success term, since something may be persuasive, even if it fails to persuade in some instances—it just cannot fail to persuade anyone in any situation. Thanks to Mikael Janvid for highlighting this issue to me.

  14. 14.

    This is, of course, compatible with there being a certain phenomenology to apprehending some truths. What is being denied is whether that phenomenology in general tracks the truth. For two relevant discussions, see Conee (1998) on “seeing the truth” and Williamson (2000) on anti-luminosity.

  15. 15.

    It might be objected that, given that the standards of reasons or evidence required for true belief to amount to knowledge, clearly, are higher than the standards for simply holding a true belief, the likelihood that one loses a known belief due to misleading evidence is lower than the likelihood that one loses a merely true belief due to misleading evidence. However, this would only support the relevant asymmetry between justified and mere true belief when it comes to a subject’s susceptibility to propaganda, had the matter of whether we are believing in a manner that satisfies the relevant standards always been transparent to the subject in question. However, as was just argued, that is not so. Consequently, actually having satisfied the relevant standards is not something that guarantees that you will not run into misleading yet persuasive evidence that suggests that you are not.

  16. 16.

    Notice, however, that the following argument can be made in terms of any externalist analysis of justification, and does not require that such externalism be spelled out in reliablist terms.

  17. 17.

    Notice that this question about the relative merits of knowing as opposed to merely believing the relevant truths remains even if we take practical wisdom to involve the knowing of certain thoroughly normative facts or truths—at least if we assume that normative propositions are at all truth-apt. If they are not truth-apt, however, then the very question of knowing the relevant truths does not even arise, given that knowledge is a factive attitude. Thanks to Anne Baril for pushing me on this point.

  18. 18.

    See, e.g., Greco (2009 and 2007) and Riggs (2007 and 2002).

  19. 19.

    I’m assuming here that Autonomous’ cognitive character constitutes the most salient part of the causal factors that give rise to the relevant true beliefs, as per Greco (2009: 20), and that the relevant beliefs are the products of Autonomous’ actual abilities, in Riggs’ (2007: 335) terminology (which I take it comes to the same thing).

  20. 20.

    The idea that social deliberation is not only crucial to democracy but also epistemically beneficial is particularly prominent among deliberative democrats. See, e.g., Talisse (2005), Young (2000), and Benhabib (1996).

  21. 21.

    See Sunstein (2006) for a discussion.

  22. 22.

    See Asch (1955) for some classical empirical results to this effect.

  23. 23.

    For example, some results suggest that groups can outperform individuals when deliberating over questions that have demonstrably correct answers (Hastie 1986), such as mathematical questions (Stasson et al. 1991), random coding questions (Laughlin et al. 2002), and questions relating to Wason selection tasks (Moshman and Geil 1998).

  24. 24.

    Note that the argument provided here does not suggest that we should give up on social deliberation, but merely that the psychology of social deliberation does not give us reason to think that a knowing public is better from the point of view of successful action and decision-making than a public that merely believes truly. That something does not do a great job of providing what we want from it is not an argument for giving up on it, unless there is some alternative that does a better job of providing what we want. As it happens, I have argued that there is such an alternative (see Ahlstrom-Vij, forthcoming), but nothing to that effect is implied what has been argued in the present investigation.

  25. 25.

    See, e.g., Sternberg and Jordan (2005).

  26. 26.

    See Gilovich et al. (2002) for a relevant anthology, and Bishop and Trout (2005) for an accessible introduction to the epistemological implications of this kind of research.


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I want to thank the participants at the 2011 Bled Epistemology Conference, Lingnan University’s philosophy seminar, and the SERG Research Seminar at the University of Copenhagen for valuable discussion. I’m particularly grateful to Derek Baker, Anne Baril, Mikkel Gerken, David Henderson, Mikael Janvid, Klemens Kappel, Chris Kelp, Paisley Livingston, Nikolaj Jang Lee Linding Pedersen, Jim Rice, Wayne Riggs, Kelly Trogdon, and Sarah Wright. Research underlying the present paper was conducted with generous support from the Velux Foundation.

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Correspondence to Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij.

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Ahlstrom-Vij, K. What’s so Good about a Wise and Knowledgeable Public?. Acta Anal 27, 199–216 (2012).

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  • Knowledge
  • Wisdom
  • Overconfidence
  • Public ignorance