“Common Sense” Is Overrated ~ Episode #67

Humans come with 5 basic senses. We have the ability to see, to hear, to taste, to touch, and to smell. There is an alleged “6th sense” that we are supposed to all have too. No, not the ability to talk to dead people. Rather, we are expected to have what is known as “common sense.”

What Is Common Sense?

Common sense appeals to an alleged body of knowledge that the masses share in common about how to function in life. Wikipedia defines common sense as “sound practical judgment concerning everyday matters, or a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge that is shared by (“common to”) nearly all people.”

I like to think of common sense as a sort of “street smarts” for the basic everyday functions of life of everyday life. It’ll give you a very Forrest Gump sorta outlook on life, full of folksy pithy sayings like “Mamma always said… life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

And in many ways, common sense is good. In today’s podcast, I want to talk about why common sense is good. But I also want to talk about why common sense has its limitations, and why we should prefer other things over common sense.

What Common Sense Looks Like

For example, I should know to look both ways before crossing the street. Common sense should teach me that I shouldn’t grab a hot pan out of an oven without first putting on an oven mitt. And common sense tells you to never answer “Yes” when your wife asks “Do these jeans make my butt look big?” Common sense tells us that we should never spend more than we earn, and that we should live below our means., otherwise, we will eventually go broke.

Folks who lack common sense will usually learn it through the school of hard knocks. It’s a tough school to avoid, but one that most of us have been enrolled into at some time or another.

In many ways, common sense is a great thing, and the world needs more of it. But common sense has its limitations, and I think we need to recognize that common sense isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Some would question whether common sense is something that is actually all that common to begin with, and to what degree common sense is good.

Challenging “Common Sense”

Here’s a couple interesting quotes I came across by psychologist Jim Taylor, who wrote an article on the issue at Pscyhology Today:

Common sense is neither common nor sense. There’s not a whole of sound judgment going on these days (though whether it is worse than in the past, I can’t be sure), so it’s not common. If common sense was common, then most people wouldn’t make the kinds of decisions they do every day. People wouldn’t buy stuff they can’t afford. They wouldn’t smoke cigarettes or eat junk food. They wouldn’t gamble. And if you want to get really specific and timely, politicians wouldn’t be tweeting pictures of their private parts to strangers. People wouldn’t do the multitude of things that are clearly not good for them.

Jim Taylor, PhD

The word common, by definition, suggests that common sense is held by a large number of people. But the idea that if most people think something makes sense then it must be sound judgment has been disproven time and time again. Further, it is often people who might be accused of not having common sense who prove that what is common sense is not only not sense, but also completely wrong. Plus, common sense is often used by people who don’t have the real knowledge, expertise, or direct experience to actually make sound judgments.

Jim Taylor, PhD

Perhaps the biggest problem with common sense is that it falls prey to the clear limits of personal experience. Or, we don’t even have any actual experience in the matter and rely simply on what we believe to be true or have been told is true, what we might label “faith-based sense” (in the broadest sense of the word faith). For example, when you’re having a discussion about just about anything that requires taking a stand, for example, the weather, the economy, raising children, sports, what have you, how often do you hear some variation of “It’s been my experience that [fill in the blank]” and the person then draws a conclusion based on said experience? And how often is that conclusion wildly at odds with the facts? 

Jim Taylor, PhD

Indeed, much of the time our appeals to “common sense” is us just a projection of our fantasies onto others and the way we think the world should act, even though there is little to nothing to back up our ideas. It’s a logical fallacy that appeals to a non-existent authority. Our appeal to common sense is sometimes nothing more than us just “going by our gut feeling,” “flying by the seat of our pants,” “winging it,” or.. just being engaged in some good old fashioned BS.

Idiots Can Be Ruled By Common Sense

I remember a paralegal I used to work for at a law firm. Let’s call her Karen, since that’s the hip thing to do these days. And well, her name actually was Karen. Karen was a problematic employee. She was arrogant, hostile, and a poor communicator. She expected us to read her mind with whatever her requests were. And if we failed to satisfy whatever she failed to communicate when assigning you a task, she’d scream at you about failing to use “common sense.”

This mindset eventually cost Karen her job. She was fired because she was an idiot. An idiot who thought she was full of “common sense.” But at the end of the day, people got really tired of Karen’s failure to communicate being thrown back on us as our failure to do an assigned task properly.

An Alternative To Common Sense

In my opinion, we probably could use a lot less “common sense,” and instead, need to make sound judgment based on factual knowledge, careful study, and with input from a variety of perspectives. Or, we need what the ancients used to call “wisdom.”

Wisdom is to be preferred over common sense. The constant appeal by many to “common sense” solutions to major problems is a mantra mouthed by idiots who want to try and hack their way through life by constantly “winging it.”

The Death Of Expertise

We prefer to live in a world of Forrest Gump like sayings. We’ve given preference to simple bumper sticker slogans and catchy internet memes. We cast our doubt on expertise because sometimes they are wrong about things or appear to engage in shady practices with dishonest biases.

That is why, in part, I believe our culture has seen the so-called “death of expertise.”

But the general disdain of experts and people who have been wrong about things is no excuse for being a flippant idiot.

We might make fun of the weatherman for being wrong and having some big misses in their forecasts. But the truth of the matter is, most weathermen are much more accurate than we give them credit for in their forecasts. And they are certainly better at their jobs than you and I are at predicting the weather.

The best baseball players in the world may only get on base 30% of the time they go to the plate. And in spite of all their study of the game and countless hours of practice, they will fail to hit the ball more often than not. But they are the best at what they do, and if I were to build a team, I’d sooner pick any pro baseball player over the bleacher bums that criticize them.

We Need To Be Humble

At the end of the day, we need to be humble. While common sense can get us far, and we need more of it, we must humbly recognize the limits of our knowledge. Such is a tough pill to swallow.

But, when I look at the world, I realize the world is a complex place with issues that are beyond my ability to easily navigate. And we need more than common sense to navigate the complex world we find ourselves in. We need to rely on others more than our senses.

Common sense didn’t build the laptop I’m using to put together this website and podcast. Nor did it build the house I’m living in. Common sense didn’t do any of these things. Wise people made these things possible. People with in depth knowledge of issues that I can’t even begin to understand. They are people who have something more than common sense. They are experts who have sound judgment, know things about things, and ultimately bring wisdom to their craft.

While we need more common sense in this world, we need wisdom more.

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