The Problem With Common Sense

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The problem with common sense is that it leads to common conclusions. In the best of times, common sense is our bullshit detector, the little spot in our brain that says "That doesn’t seem right." In the worst of times, though, it’s that little spot in the brain that says "That seems right" even when it isn’t.

There is a general bias in academic culture to focus on the fact that one of the things we learn through research is to be skeptical, at least in our fields of expertise. Andrew Pettegrew, a noted Reformation scholar set me straight though. We were at dinner and I started out a story by saying "You’ll never believe this." He interrupted me and said "I’m a scholar. I’m trained to believe the unbelievable." I don’t even remember what story I told, whether it dealt with my research or with something that had happened to me that afternoon, but his comment taught me what was hands down the single most important thing I learned in graduate school.

When I thought about it, I realized that is the more powerful and important skill that we learn through research. It’s not to have our bullshit detectors out constantly. Rather, it’s that we do research and testing and when the testing shows us something unbelievable, we don’t reject it because common sense tells us it isn’t so. We might need a second round of research and testing, more data, better controls. But in the end, it’s not our common sense and skepticism that allows us to think new things in new ways. Those are merely the obstacles that keep us from think foolish things in foolish ways, but nothing interesting, great or innovative ever comes from them.

Uncommon sense, backed with data, lies behind every idea worth propagating.

3 Responses to “The Problem With Common Sense”

  1. The last few pages of “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” have the same lesson. The professor believes the children’s story because it is the most logical explanation.

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  2. Have you ever used that in a job interview as an answer to the question “What are you bringing in the game?”
    Possible answer – good academic formation, which thought me to accept the unacceptable if it benefits the work and if I can measure and reproduce it.
    I.e. and over-unity electrical engine or something along this lines

  3. Ha! Nope, never thought of using that in a job interview. I’d have to think about the delivery though. It could appear as arrogant or sarcastic if you get it wrong.

    But it’s a good answer. I mean the idea that I’m prepared to reject things I believe to be true and accept things I believe to be false if I’m given good evidence. Of course, we’re all human and sometimes it’s harder to practice that than to just preach it.

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