Blue Wings 11-2014 Why Common sense doesn’t always make sense

In my heart of hearts I am an academic. I am curious, I want to understand the world and learn new things every day. Yet the more I learn, the more I understand that I will never know even a fraction of it all.

My late grandfather, Kai Setälä, was a professor of medicine. His science was always more natural than mine. Mine was always more social than his. He was a scientist, I am a political scientist.

I remember the talks we used to have about the methodology of science. His theories had to be clear, precise and quantified. My social science was always a bit more flimsy. He had clear answers; I was trying to find clarity with my questions.

Against this background I enjoyed reading Duncan J. Watts’ book Everything Is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us. He argues that “the outcomes we observe in life – explanations that seem obvious once we know the answer – are less useful than they seem.”

Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft, makes the simple observation that we should not try to apply the same rules to social and natural sciences. Rocket science is difficult, but we are actually better at planning the flight path of a rocket than we are at managing the economy.

Arguing against common sense is not easy, because in our day-to-day lives it is indeed a good thing. The problem arises, Watts argues, when we start trying to apply common sense to more complex issues.

The application of common sense to business, markets, politics or international relations rarely works. This is relevant because a lot of big decisions are made on the basis of assumed common sense.

Politicians think they know how to deal with poverty – and prepare policies accordingly. Advertising agencies base their marketing plans on assumptions about what the consumer wants.

Some things seem obvious in hindsight. Watts is correct in arguing that “the paradox of common sense…is that even as it helps to make sense of the world, it can actively undermine our ability to understand it.”

This is the problem. We look at something retrospectively and believe that we have an answer for the future, that we know how it is all going to work the next time around. This is where I think we go wrong. The world is complex. Every problem is different, thus solutions must vary.

I think my grandfather and Watts are right. In our daily lives it is absolutely fine to try to find common sense answers to simple questions. But when it comes to more complex questions, common sense is often an impediment to a solution.

Questioning your own beliefs is not easy, but it is a good start to finding an answer. The worst type of politician is the one who thinks that he knows it all. And then when something goes wrong he says that it came as no surprise. Well, Watts’ book surprised me – it made sense.

  1. Michael Morris-Palm
    29.10.2014 13.00

    I often think about the same question Alexander, and I think very much along the same lines as you do. I believe each new problem is unique to itself, and requires working out its own new set of solutions. Foreseeing things that have not happened yet, and understanding the random path of their evolution demands quite a lot of abstraction. There, understanding how things past have evolved, should help the brain making simulations and growing associative predictive paths. But as you so rightly point out Alex, the ability to observe and analyse in great depth, and understand present situations in their process of unrolling, is one of the most precious tools we have. However, to successfully implement solutions for the future we need something quite different from Science. We need to have the will and the guts to go where we have to go ! This is where you come in Alex. You have to convince us the citizens that we have to focus on the same goals ! Division is our worse enemy !

  2. Erland Mattsson
    01.11.2014 00.24

    Too long. I got bored abt half way. Sorry abt my English. Write less, do more Alex. Also write less abt your sport events, because then people find out that thats what you like more than the benefit of the people. Or, from my point of view, carry on, and after the next election yo will not be of any interest to anybody.

  3. Mathias
    05.11.2014 16.38

    I agree with many of your points. I do not go so far as to say we should plunge blindly into the future without regard to the past. Overall, though, when dealing with complex social problems, it is perhaps better to err on the side of well-informed intuition than to seek the apparent safety found in rigidly adhering to historical precedents, particularly in view of the fact that our world is infinitely more complicated today than it was 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago.