Value of Dissent

Copyright 2001 by Ronald B. Standler


In the days after the attacks by Arab terrorists on 11 Sep 2001, the U.S. Congress passed several hastily considered bills on nearly unanimous votes. The purpose of this essay is not to discuss the wisdom of this legislation, but to discuss the pernicious climate in which there is overwhelming consensus, and dissent is seen as either unpatriotic or disloyal.

In my essay at my other website on Heckler's Veto, I wrote in July 1999:
There is a wonderful book by Prof. G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology that is the best description of what it means to be a creative intellectual. Hardy was a Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in England and one of the outstanding mathematicians of the 20th Century. In his foreword to this book, C.P. Snow quotes Hardy:
It is never worth a first class man's time to express a majority opinion. By definition, there are plenty of others to do that.

Progress is made, not by comfortably agreeing with the conventional wisdom, but by having the courage to say what no one else is saying and to say it with clearly articulated reasons that motivate people to change their opinions.


History does seem to show that good ideas do eventually prevail, but a time scale of hundreds of years is often required for revolutionary thoughts. Prejudice and superstition seem to change more slowly than, for example, scientific knowledge. In some areas of contemporary technology, what was state-of-the-art technique in 1975 may be essentially obsolete by 1990.

Perhaps a better way to state the justification for freedom of speech is to say that it shall be for posterity to decide Truth, not government bureaucrats, not judges, not politicians. I have a quotation from Ibsen on the wall of my office:
I hold that man is in the right who is most closely in league with the future.

We need more than just freedom of speech, we need an active debate on all important issues. Overwhelming consensus is dangerous, as such consensus intimidates people who dissent. Dissent, and the presentation of alternative proposals, is essential to avoiding mistakes.

A view from England

An editorial in The Economist, a weekly newsmagazine published in London, England, said that the job
... of Parliament is not to govern but to hold the government to account; and as a rule it does this best when it assumes the worst about the government's motives and competence. The job of the opposition is not to salute the government but to pounce on its every mistake, prick its every pretension, belittle its every success — and, above all, to offer an alternative. Of course, there are times when it behooves the opposition to stress that it is "loyal", meaning that is not traitorous. Beyond that, however, too much prating about loyalty, even in war, damages democracy's health.
The Economist, 13 Oct 2001, page 56.

This editorial inspired me to write this essay.


There are two distinct issues in dissent:
  1. The right to freedom of speech in most circumstances. Most unconventional speech is neither useful nor beneficial. The right simply means that judges and politicians should not be suppressing speech because they disagree with the content.

  2. The genuine utility of dissent that is supported by correct facts, historical review, persuasive logic, and a plausible alternative proposal. In many cases, we have been in similar situations before and made mistakes that we later regretted, so being reminded of history can prevent more mistakes.

From time to time, one hears someone make a preposterous statement that flouts the conventional wisdom (e.g., defending Adolf Hitler from condemnation). Such statements are not the kind of dissent that I am advocating in this essay. It is not enough to disagree with the majority — to be useful, one must also have correct facts, plausible reasoning, and a constructive alternative proposal. The dissent that I am advocating is motivated neither by perversity nor by iconoclasm, but by a genuine desire to avoid error or to find a better solution to a problem.

A view from Academia

When professors prepare a scholarly paper, it is conventional practice to circulate drafts amongst the author's friends. The role of the friends is not to praise either the new ideas or lovely expression in the draft. The proper role of friends is to subject the draft to critical scrutiny: to find errors, to see what is missing in an explanation or argument, to find logical gaps, to suggest a better organization or better way of explaining, and even to find grammar or spelling errors. I suggest that executives and legislators would do well to emulate this practice of professors, and to actively encourage internal dissent and critical scrutiny, as a way of avoiding harmful errors.

Further, when the final draft of a scholarly paper is sent away to an archival journal, the editor of that journal will send copies of the draft to several experts in the field for what is known as "peer review". These reviewers read the paper critically, assess the methods, statistical analysis of data, logic, reasonableness of the conclusions, and look for other potential problems, in order to ensure that the journal publishes only papers of high quality. In many cases, reviewers recommend that a draft not be published until substantial improvements are made in the draft. While peer review delays publication, it also acts as a check against publishing untrustworthy material or poorly presented material.

In statistical analysis of experimental data, one sometimes hears that the new information is in the outlying data points that do not lie near the smooth curve drawn through the majority of data points. Perhaps one can make an analogy to the outlying data points as being the voices of dissent, and the other data points as the consensus of the majority.

Devil's Advocate

In the Roman Catholic Church, when considering a proposed beatification, canonization, or endorsement of a miracle, the Church appointed a advocatus diaboli – Devil's Advocate – to critically examine the facts, then to vigorously put forth the argument against approval. The Devil's Advocate is not an idle formality, but an active and essential way to avoid regrettable errors.

I suggest a parallel between a Devil's Advocate and an attorney who represents an "obviously guilty criminal" at trial. Such criminal defense attorneys pursue their job not necessarily to get their clients acquitted, but to get a fair trial for their clients. By representing the "wrong side", the attorney functions to make sure that the procedure is fair, so that the client obtains a fair trial. The defense attorney is essential to maintaining the fairness of the courts, as an instrument of civilization, and not as a mob that follows popular sentiment.


Critical scrutiny and alternative proposals are not disloyal conduct. Instead, such dissent is an essential way to avoid a tyranny of an overwhelming majority, by interrupting emotional zeal and injecting facts, history, logic, and better alternatives.

This document is at
modified 25 Nov 2001

Return to my personal homepage.