Wilde vs. Swift on Disagreement

Oscar Wilde once said that to disagree with three quarters of the British public was a prerequisite of sanity. Although Jonathan Swift probably put the idea better when he wrote that one can recognize a true genius by the following sign: all the dunces are in a confederacy against him. Wilde and Swift agree that a mere disagreement is no reason to change one’s own beliefs. They agree that  if you find yourself up against a large number of people who think you’re wrong, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are. That seems a matter of common sense, but why?

When people disagree with us, as happens so very often, how should we react? Typically, if we are arguing at a rowdy party or over Christmas dinner, our usual reaction is to defend our beliefs more vigorously in the face of the disagreement. We become, in some sense, more tightly wedded to our beliefs than before the disagreement surfaced. That is rather strange. After all, isn’t a disagreement some kind of evidence that someone has gone wrong, somewhere? If you and I tally the bill at the restaurant and come to very different totals, why should I presume straight off the bat that it must be you who has gone wrong? It could have been either of us. The sensible thing seems to be to put the disagreement on ice, and to start tallying the bill again.

To help answer this question about how we ought to react to disagreements, philosophers have recently made much ado about the idea of epistemic peerhood. Although debate continues about how best to characterise the notion of epistemic peerhood, the general idea is that you would count as my epistemic peer, so long as you were approximately as intelligent, as well-read, as reasonable and as sensitive to evidence as me. If we were to have some kind of disagreement, then this disagreement should cause me to lose at least a little bit of confidence in my beliefs so long as you are my epistemic peer. If we are both Seinfeld aficionados, but find that we disagree over what George Costanza’s favourite pseudonym is, we ought to put the disagreement on ice until we can settle it by watching the relevant episodes again.

So, in answer to the question of how we ought to react to a disagreement, philosophers such as Richard Feldman and Adam Elga have argued that if a disagreement is between epistemic peers, both parties ought to lose confidence in their beliefs, and give up on the disagreement until more evidence can be brought in to settle the dispute. If we tally the bill and come to different totals, then naturally we will put the disagreement on ice so long as we accept each other to be epistemic peers. If I am a mathematician, whereas you are a child who has not yet learnt basic addition, then of course I won’t put the disagreement on ice. I’ll just say “you’re wrong, kid.”

On this account of disagreement, Swift’s point stands on firmer ground that Wilde’s. The mere fact that a confederacy of dunces disagrees with a genius is no argument against the beliefs of the genius. The dunces are, by definition, not the epistemic peers of the genius. Although Wilde’s witticism is, as ever, sharp and irreverent, it fails to capture the reason why the majority of Brits may not always be a trustworthy gauge of one’s own sanity. There seems no obvious reason to think that 75% of the British public are always and in every respect morons, and on the contrary, we very often have reason to think that the 25% are the ones who have gone wrong somewhere.

Don’t believe me? I direct your attention to the following article:

Nearly a Quarter of Brits Think Churchill a Myth: Poll


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