A lot of attention has been paid to the “wisdom of crowds”, with great discussion about whether, when, and how crowdsourcing gives accurate appraisals of situations. We are the wiser for it.
But very little talk about another widespread belief, and perhaps a distinctively American one: I call it the “wisdom of fights”.
I thought of this earlier this week watching yet another discussion panel where the MC clearly believed his job was to get the panelists to start disagreeing with one another.
Why? Is there some intrinsic virtue to disagreement?
It’s a widespread belief. Our justice system believes that both defense and prosecution should unabashedly attack one another’s positions, with the clear implication that this process will surface everything a jury needs to reach a decisions. The judge is required so the combatants will fight fair, but there’s no notion that the fighting itself is suboptimal.
Politics: the debate format has pretty much supplanted the speech format. If we let Romney poke holes in Obama’s positions and Obama poke holes in Romney’s, we’ll know as much as if we had read through thoughtful presentations of each of their positions and then come to our own conclusions.
“Let’s you and him fight” is a very popular news format today, and most of the criticisms decry the lack of civility in the format, not the lack of veracity.
What makes science work is that both sides agree that a certain experiment will falsify a theory if it goes wrong. Because the test is connected to the theory as a whole, something of significance takes place in the disagreement. It’s profound disagreement.
So much of the “wisdom of fights” disagreement is shallow: it’s finding out that someone didn’t publish his tax returns, that someone won’t answer a certain question, that someone is vulnerable to a humiliating analogy or insult. The disgreement isn’t under test in any way, except in the trivial sense that someone who stands up under repeated insult has some kind of staying power.
The wisdom of fights is very suspect.