Contrariwise: Common Sense Is Neither Common Nor Sensible

Sometimes the “common sense” approach is the one best avoided.

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Common sense, defined as “sound judgment derived from experience rather than study,” is one of the most revered qualities in America. It evokes images of early and simpler times in which industrious men and women built our country into what it is today. People with common sense are seen as reasonable, down to earth, reliable, and practical.

But here’s the catch. Common sense is neither common nor sensible. The word common, by definition, suggests that this fine quality is held by a large number of people. But the idea that if a belief is held by a large number of people it must be sound has been disproven time and time again (e.g., the world is flat, vaccines are dangerous, Korean pop star PSY has talent).

If common sense actually made sense, then most people wouldn’t make the kinds of ill-advised decisions they do every day.

If common sense actually made sense, then most people wouldn’t make the kinds of ill-advised 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. In short, people wouldn’t do the multitude of things that are clearly not good for them.

In recent years, the idea that common sense is more worthy than, oh, actual knowledge based on rigorous study, has been weaponized by politicians. Republicans use it as an ideological cudgel, inferring that this quality is somehow lacking among coastal elites. Democrats counter this criticism by playing up their working-class cred; they wear jeans, drive pick-ups, and attempt to warm the hearts of voters with tales of their up-by-the-bootstraps backgrounds.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the common sense argument is that it is  invariably supported by anecdotal evidence. For example, in a discussion about the weather, the economy, child-rearing, sports, what have you, how often do you hear some variation of “Well, it’s been my experience that [fill in the blank].” As we all should have learned in Science 101, a single observation does not a theory make: “What do you mean, global warming? I’m freezing my butt off here!”

We need to jettison this notion of the sanctity of common sense and instead embrace “reasoned sense,” that is, sound judgment based on rigorous study of an issue. We can, and should, apply many of the basic principles of the scientific method (develop hypotheses, collect and analyze data, draw reasoned conclusions) in our daily lives and challenge the facile and sometimes harebrained ideas that our friends — and even some of our leaders — unthinkingly spout. That is the kind of sense that makes the most sense, however common or uncommon it might be.

*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
—Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

This article is featured in the September/October 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening PostSubscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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