On knowledge and democracy

J Clive Matthews
23 October 2007
Wisdom and knowledge

One of the key arguments supporting any kind of deliberative democracy is that the process of deliberation leads to an increase in knowledge and understanding - with the natural assumption that the more they improve, the more considered the opinions.

However, as already noted, one of the questions selected by one of the groups for the final Q&A with the experts, after three days of deliberation, was "what is the role of the European Parliament within the EU institutions". With such a fundamental aspect of the way the EU runs still not understood by at least some of the participants on the final day, just how much was their knowledge actually increased?

Well, this was one of the things the poll tested (PDF).

Unsurprisingly, the total number of correct answers - across a range of nine multiple-choice questions - improved fairly significantly during the time of the poll. The total knowledge gain is measured at 16% between the first poll (of 3,500 people) and the last (of the 362 participants after the weekend's deliberation).

However, there is still some cause for concern. First, the second poll - taken as the 362 participants arrived - already showed an average knowledge gain of 10.9% on the initial poll of 3,500. Does this indicate that the participants had already started to read more about the subjects they would be discussing - or does it indicate that they had a greater average level of knoweldge than the initial sample, and could therefore be considered unrepresentative?

Certainly, in terms of educational level the participants in the deliberation were better-educated than the poll as a whole (PDF), with 57.7% of the 362 having at least some university education compared to just 37.4% in the initial sample of 3,500. Perhaps greater levels of knowledge should be expected - but does this affect the claims for representativeness?

Furthermore, on certain specific issues discussed in detail during the deliberation, the increase in knowledge was significantly below the average knowledge gain. For example, despite sessions specifically dedicated to employment within the EU, by the time of the final poll still only 19.2% of participants could pick the right answer when asked how the EU adopts employment laws (a knowledge gain of only 10.6%). Less than half the participants were able to pick the correct answer when asked what the EU's role is in employment benefits. This may have been a knowledge gain of 17.8% - but the fact that they had supposedly been discussing precisely this issue in detail yet still didn't know how the EU fits into the equation could be cause for concern.

Or is it? Is an understanding of how a political system works really necessary to participate effectively within that system? I, after all, have only the most basic of understandings of how the computer I am typing this on actually works, yet still manage to get the job done. And there is any number of examples where experts have got things wrong.

In other words, is factual knowledge actually necessary for democratic decision-making to be effective - or is the wisdom of crowds sufficient in itself?

And in any case, which is more important - an understanding of the facts, or an understanding and appreciation of opposing viewpoints? I may once have argued the former - but is the latter more important for a healthy democracy? More on this to follow...

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