The Modern Survival Guide #23
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and one of those views is that I try as hard as I can, every day, to come up with actual evidence for the things I believe. Intellectual rigor is hard to achieve, but it’s very important to survival in the modern world — because the “common sense” approach to things is fraught with peril.
There is a phrase that should raise warning flags every single time you hear it: “Well, everyone knows…” This is the prelude to a discussion that will rely heavily on common sense, often to the exclusion of actual thought. This works less and less well as the topic under discussion increases in complexity and specialized knowledge requirements — and that covers a lot of topics these days.
A working definition of the concept of common sense is as follows: Practical judgment concerning everyday matters, or a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge that is shared by (“common to”) nearly all people.
Now that sounds like a rosy little item, doesn’t it? The devil is in the details, though, particularly the words “basic” and “shared.” A synonym for common sense is folk wisdom — unreflective knowledge not reliant on specialized training or deliberative thought.
Basically, common sense refers to knowledge that “everyone knows.” Water is blue. It won’t get better if you pick at it. All politicians are liars. A firm handshake is a good judge of a person’s character. Church is a good place to instill morals in young people. Your investments will eventually regain value after a market crash. And so on, and so forth — a lot of this stuff is received wisdom that we just take for granted.
Do these statements sound familiar in their monotonous certainty, though? Does it all start to look a bit like our old friend, the irrational heuristic from MSG #4? Well, that’s because that’s exactly what common sense is — a slightly more complex heuristic, distilled down into things that we think we know.
Is water blue? Of course it is, sometimes. Other times, water is green, or clear, or brownish-grey, or white. It’s totally situational.
Will it get better if you pick at it? Of course not. Unless you need to lance an infected boil before it causes gangrene. In that case you should probably pick at it, at least once.
Are all politicians liars? Yes. Yes they are. This is accurate, but it leaves out the issue that this is what we elect them to do. Politicians tell lies to show us the world as it could be, and then bring that world into reality. Whether or not that’s a good thing is an entirely separate subject.
Is a firm handshake a good judge of character? Of course it isn’t. The first trick every con artist learns is how to give an honest handshake.
Will church instill good morals in a young person? Probably, for a given value of “good”… unless you send them to Westboro Baptist. Or any one of the thousands of similar churches scattered across every state in America. Then probably not.
Will your investments recover their value given time? Sometimes. Sometimes it really is better to cut and run. Nobody’s going to be buying Enron stock again.
You get the point. All too often, “common sense” is just code for something people want to think about in black and white terms. However, the key to real success, survival, and prosperity is to acknowledge, recognize, and understand the subtleties. The is the conflict of common sense — reconciling what “everyone knows” with what you know about a specific situation, and then making a choice to believe one or the other.
With that in mind, let’s look at five rules of thumb (and yes, I am aware of the irony) for untangling common sense:
Watch for key words.
If someone says anything remotely approaching the phrase “everyone knows,” put on your Doubt Hat immediately. This is likely a case of someone parroting an opinion without proof. Just because “everyone knows” something doesn’t make it right, true, or valid for your situation.
Do not trust first impressions.
One of the most bone-headed items of common sense is this idea that first impressions are really indicative of character. Handshakes, physical attractiveness, clothing, eye contact, speech patterns — these are all tools that people can use to make a first impression. You will never know, on first meeting, whether or not they are overtly trying to manipulate you with these tools. Some of the worst people you will meet will also be the most immediately personable. Pay attention to actions and patterns of behavior over time, not to appearances or first impressions.
Beware your assumptions.
The insidious thing about a lot of really dumb items we take for “common sense” is that we’re taught them from day one, by authority figures whom we trust. We are all programmed, friends. And our programming is so deep that we usually don’t recognize it.
A lot of “common sense” is just us unconsciously parroting someone we trusted as children. The next time you are bone-deep certain about something obvious, ask yourself why. If your brain defaults to “well, everyone knows,” or “well, so-and-so said,” congratulations! You’ve likely found an instance where you’re relying on common sense. Maybe you shouldn’t be.
Beware simple explanations.
Nothing in life is particularly simple; we’re just more familiar with some situations than others, which make them seem simple. A lot of people want simple, “common sense” solutions for highly complex problems, particularly in politics, which is just another way of saying that they aren’t particularly interested in understanding the issues. A LOT of simple “common sense” solutions fail miserably, or have serious unintended consequences, simply because they were unable to address all aspects of a complex issue. For reference, feel free to review the history of the war on drugs, or “three-strike” legislation.
Evaluate “truthy” statements.
Common sense of the “everyone knows” type is especially dangerous because it makes it easy to believe “truthy” statements. These are things that sound like they ought to be true, and typically play into common sense views of the world. They are usually complete and utter hogwash, pushed by someone with an agenda. Truthy statements are all over the opinion pieces, social media, and tabloids we see every day, and the hell of it is, the more we see them, the truthier they get!
For example, take the “common sense” view that immigrants from Mexico cause increased crime. Mexico is a violent place full of drug dealers, right? A lot of drugs are smuggled from Mexico, right? So it sounds reasonable that immigrants from Mexico, particularly illegal immigrants who are breaking the law just by coming here, should cause an increase in crime, right?
Except they don’t. Immigrants, instead, tend to be more law-abiding than citizens. The statement “immigrants cause crime” is truthy because we’re bombarded with news images of Mexican drug gangs, not because of anything true in reality. But it’s common sense.
Common Sense Sucks
It’s time to accept a hard truth: most people don’t know what they’re talking about, and that leaves you trying to derive “common sense” from false principles. Common sense is, at best, substituting consensus opinion for thought. That’s always dangerous, but it’s even more dangerous in a time when you might be reasonably expected to consent to medical treatments involving the words “nano particles” and most of the people you meet are not doctors.
Common sense is just lazy thinking. It’s trusting complex topics to the consensus opinion of the proverbial man in the pub. It’s pushing a pattern of thought based on the benefit of not having to think. It’s reducing the endless variety and magnificence of the world to a list of banal imprecations.
Everything that I have seen in this world firmly supports the old adage that the universe is not only stranger than we know, it is stranger than we can know. To take away that complexity is to deny the fundamental ground state of existence. As such, I hate common sense. And I think you should, too.