Common sense isn't as helpful as you'd like, and neither is the truth

April 18, 2020

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We covet common sense, especially at those times where the expertise of the academic world can seem so distant from our daily concerns. But the spirit of academic enquiry has something that common sense doesn't and you don't need to be an academic to have it too.


On the common pitfalls of common sense

I haven't written one of these for this article yet.

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Article Status: Complete (for now).

We covet common sense. More now, than ever. It's no secret that anti-intellectualism is on the rise. And no wonder, when their crisis models spaghetti around from panic inducing millions-dead to thousands-dead and back again. Or their hard-nosed economic policies eliminate the pensions of citizens as a sacrifice(pdf) for the follies of the previous round of economic policy. We're forced to realise that the impenetrable language of experts isn't always impenetrable because it's clever. Book-smarts isn't street smarts, as the saying goes. We're also coming to realise that experts have agendas.

That's not to say expertise isn't valuable. But expertise obviously doesn't have an answer to every question. And so, we turn to common sense. The unfortunate thing about common sense is that it's often derived from 'folk', or 'conventional' wisdom. Which itself is often derived from some expert source, just diluted until it's comprehensable. Many times, the conventional wisdom serves the need. But often, dilution just confuses the issue. Let me start with an example. I bet you've heard the phrase before:

“Blood is thicker than water.”

- doesn't really matter, at this point

This, of course, means that family (our blood ties) are stronger (thicker) than our other relationships (water). Sensible enough metaphor.

So you might be surprised to learn that in various times and places throughout history the meaning of the saying has been entirely inverted. Try this variation:

The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb

This is thought to be one of the most likely candidates for the origins of the saying. The meaning here is that the friendships formed in battle or blood sacrifice are stronger than that of even your mother.

The same expansion of the phrase might refer quite literally to the Catholic belief of Jesus' blood binding one into the covenant (laws) of their religion.

It's also thought by some that this original meaning was altered by the German phrase 'the blood of kin cannot be spoiled by water' which isn't surprising when it looks like this; 'blut ist dicker als wasser'. Almost makes you think you can speak German.

Or perhaps the phrases developed concurrently. No one really knows, but the point is, at various times and in various places the same phrase has meant qualitatively different things. A little disorienting, no?

Let's get to the point

So what am I getting at? Well, that basically, conventional wisdom isn't always so wise. Consider these phrases;

  • the pen is mightier than the sword
  • opposites attract/similarity breeds contempt
  • absence makes the heart grow fonder

All common sayings that we generally take for granted, I'm sure. You know what other sayings we take for granted?

  • actions speak louder than words
  • birds of a feather flock together
  • out of sight, out of mind

It's enough to destabilise one's orbit around the world. Makes you wonder just how many platitudes out there contradict each other, or have changed from their original meaning, or are used out of context.

This particular issue is probably best accounted for by 'hindsight bias'. So long as the statement is general enough to match any of your experiences, you'll likely believe it. This is particularly if it's from someone you trust. Or if you forget where you heard it. This latter effect is called source blindness: over time we forget where we heard or read something and since the information stuck with us, we assume it was from a trustworthy source. Even if it wasn't.

And we're back to the experts, kind of

Life is complex. Complex enough that any general statement will feel applicable every now and then. Platitudes are fun, but they'll only ever be rules of thumb. It is useful then, to try and trace them to their origins. In this, the expertise of the academic world can help, because this tracing is at the heart of scholarly enquiry.

While most of the expressions here have proved vexing for academics to answer in any simple way, it certainly seems like the value of similarity is vitally important when it comes to attraction, even though our differences can be attractive too. These half truths may not be particularly satisfying, but at least it makes them a little more useful.

And there lies the value of experts. The spirit of academic enquiry has proved Aristotle's maxim time and time again:

the best truth is usually the one balanced between two extremes

And the best way to find it is to look.

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