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Cure for the common sense

| Monday, March 21, 2016

If I could force all politicians to never utter one phrase of my choosing again, it would be “common sense.” It’s everywhere. “Common sense” gun control from Bernie Sanders, “common sense” immigration bans from Donald Trump and “common sense” health insurance from Ted Cruz. The phrase has saturated political discourse, and I’m sick of it.

The first reason I’d like to annihilate this stupid phrase is that gives politicians an excuse for lazy argument. All a politician has to do is tack the phrase “common sense” onto whatever poorly planned proposal they’re hawking and it instantly becomes unassailable. After all, what right-minded rhetorician would argue against common sense? The argument then becomes tantamount to proof by vigorous hand waving.

Moreover, common sense is the go-to for any second-rate populist who wants to pander to low-information voters with plain-folks propagandizing. The use of “common sense” implies that the ideas of those who have not studied an issue are on par with, or even superior to, those of the men and women who have made it their life’s work. Read the comments on any article about the Supreme Court nomination and you’re sure to find many loud voices that know what “makes sense.” Would it surprise you to learn two-thirds of Americans can’t name a single justice?

I can’t really blame disaffected citizens for rallying to common sense. Humans as a rule tend to massively overestimate their competence in fields beyond their experience. The so-called “Dunning-Kruger effect” means that humans not only remain blissfully unaware of their own ability, but also cannot detect competence in those who are actually skilled. This leaves most people with skepticism towards claims of expertise. Canny politicians wisely feign that same skepticism, loudly singing the praises of “common sense.” Heaven forbid that the people running the most powerful country in the world would try to appear smarter than average.

Let’s take a moment now to think about what common sense really means. As a concept, common sense reasoning is distinct from other modes of logic in that it functions at a very basic level that is “common” to all people involved and allows them to reach a decision quickly. In other words, common sense is the antithesis of critical thought. Is that really an ideology we want our government basing its decisions around?

When I was younger and dumber, I believed that heavier objects fell faster than lighter ones. I held firm to this belief over my teacher’s objections and science-museum demonstrations. After all, it was common sense. Even Galileo’s famous a priori proof wasn’t enough to convince me; it was only when I wrote out the Newton’s second-law balance and saw the mass variable cancel out that I understood. A short while later, I viewed the famous footage of Apollo 15 Commander David Scott dropping a hammer and a feather on the moon, and my faith in common sense was forever shattered.

Science abounds with such counterintuitive results. It’s impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. A boat made of solid steel can float in water. Freeze water and it expands. Even our most fundamental beliefs once ran counter to common sense. Look outside right now. What evidence do you have, solely from your eyes, that the earth is round? Absent satellite imagery or clever Greek trigonometry, all evidence at first glance suggests a flat earth. It is only when we look deeper that we see that common sense is wrong, as it so often is.

If politicians are looking for a snappy phrase to stir up support for their legislation, I suggest, “The experts have spoken.” It’s short, it gets the point across and it emphasizes the value of knowledge and experience over superficial reasoning. It might not be perfect, but anything is better than what we have now. I invite the reader to join me in my quest to get rid of “common sense” for good.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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