Dr. James S. Fishkin holds the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication at Stanford University where he is Professor of Communication and Professor of Political Science. He is also director of Stanford's Center for Deliberative Democracy and Chair of the Department of Communication.
He is the author of a number of books including Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform (1991), The Dialogue of Justice (1992), The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy (1995). With Bruce Ackerman he is coauthor most recently of Deliberation Day (2004). He is best known for developing Deliberative Polling®, a practice of public consultation that employs random samples of the citizenry to explore how opinions would change if they were more informed.
Dr. Fishkin's Comments Before the Pepperdine Conference
Dr. Fishkin's method of Deliberative Polling seeks to improve upon the notion of "public opinion" by introducing peer deliberation and confrontation with balanced information about the policy at issue.
One current difficulty in determining public opinion identified by Fishkin is "rational ignorance." Finding that they just do not have the time to invest in trying to sift through the information that exists, citizens remain ignorant because it is the rational thing to do. Another problem Fishkin identifies is "phantom opinions." In traditional opinion polling, non-attitudes skew the results. These non-attitudes are characterized as responses from individuals that do not know the answer, or do not have an opinion, but are unwilling to admit that they do not have an opinion or an answer. Another problem Fishkin highlighted was the "selectivity of sources." Today, when it is rational to be ignorant of the details surrounding the political issues that affect them, people also tend to reflect a bias in their sources for news. For example, Republicans seek out conservative sources of information and Democrats seek out liberal sources. This tendency does little to promote the healthy exposure to opinions different than one's own.
Fishkin's Deliberative Poll is one method of deliberative democracy that seeks to address the above problems. Fishkin explained that his Deliberative Poll includes the key components of balanced information, small group deliberation and expert Q&As. The sample of citizens involved is sized to provide results that are statistically significant, and it is created randomly in an effort to develop a microcosm of the community involved. The participants are given a questionnaire before the deliberation and then afterwards in order to measure the resulting change of opinion that the Deliberative Poll created.
The measurable, and sometimes drastic, change in opinion that is commonly achieved through Deliberative Polling is used as an argument by Dr. Fishkin that well-balanced information and deliberation among peers can lead citizens to come to more thoughtful and educated opinions about the issues that directly affect them.
Dr. Fishkin compared Deliberative Polling to methods used in Ancient Athens, where small, local deliberation characterized policy-making and decision-making. Dr. Fishkin went on to speak of Federalist 10 and the Founders of the American constitution by drawing parallels between their aspirations for American democracy, and changes that are now possible such that we can live up to the standards the Founders set forth. Living up to the standards of a truly deliberative and involved democracy means conquering some of the problems with the formation of public opinion that Fishkin sees as present in today's society.