Common Sense Sucks

Common Sense Sucks

“Common Sense is not so common”

Voltaire

           I’m a person who has spent most of their adult years studying the various intersections between philosophy, science, and psychology, so my interests tend to land squarely on methods and concepts over content. These are the parts of myself that actually brought me to TST.

I agree with 99% of TST’s positions, which is why this is my chosen religion about which I am passionate. However, there is one conceptual basis for some of TST’s positions that I believe is empirically and philosophically flawed and it may be holding us back. As far as I can tell however, it is never the SOLE reason for any of our beliefs, so this situation isn’t dire. In fact, it may just be something we throw out there to be more attractive to the mainstream, I have no idea. In any case, how we arrive at our positions is just as important as the positions themselves, and this is reflected in our own Tenet 5 by virtue of its valuation of science. The scientific method and really all of academic research unequivocally values how one arrives at one’s destination just as much as where one arrives.

 I’m talking about the fallacy of common sense.

            Dennis Prager from PragerU (barf) is fond of telling everyone to “use their common sense” and champions something he calls “common sense psychology.”  What is fascinating is that common sense has never been found to be common or consistent at the empirical level by people who actually work in the field. Common sense beliefs have been repeatedly shown to be wrong in a variety of fields, spanning centuries. In their now-classic book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, Lilienfeld et al. (2010) discuss the myth of common sense at length. Some examples they gave are, “People only use 10% of their brain,” and “low self esteem is a major cause of psychological problems.” Let’s not forget things like “black people have lower IQ’s than whites” (double fun because IQ is also a pseudoscience). These are all things that people once considered “common sense.”

            You may have noticed anecdotally that those who really value their own common sense seem to have severe difficulty being proven wrong (“boomer culture”). They very often do not question their beliefs or their assumptions about the world.  There is a concept in Social Psychology called “belief perseverance,” which is defined as the digging-in-of-heels response one has to cognitive dissonance or a simple argument against the belief. Belief perseverance interferes with critical thinking at the most base level. This is what is happening in minds of people like Dennis Prager or Donald Trump when they are faced with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs.

            Of course nothing in TST comes even close to this. However, if we are not careful we COULD, depending on how research and the world progresses. We cannot afford to let any beliefs or positions rely on “common sense” because it cannot be empirically proven as a reliable, stable, or consistent pan-human mechanism. It is nothing more than a combination of folk knowledge, cognitive fallacies (such as attribution bias), and personal life experiences, and then tempered by the present condition and environment of the person in question. This is totally fine for everyday choices, in fact this is why social psychologists do not condemn the human tendency to rely on cognitive heuristics or heuristic processing.  They get us through the day, they save us time, and they save us a good amount of stress. However, it is extremely important that all of the positions we hold at an organizational level are either wholly religious and therefore wholly subjective/aesthetic/whatever, OR reliant on empirical evidence and subject to Tenets 5 and 6 – the latter of course meaning that we are open to changing them when the evidence says that we should.

            A pertinent example of how common sense may lead us astray is on the issue of racism. Current psychological research supports social justice – and yes, even liberal/leftists agendas based on the empirical findings of social inequalities and institutional imbalances. It would be unwise to disregard respected and peer-reviewed psychological research based on Tenet 5 alone. Based on Tenet 5, we should absolutely adopt the definition of racism given by research-based social psychologists – or we should just keep quiet about the entire thing, which is often what we do with other issues of science such as vaccines.  This is ultimately no different than adopting the definitions of other scientific words such as “gamma decay” or a “polytrope” because racism is studied with the same methods and the same level of scrutiny by people with the equivalent level of specialized education.  Common sense ideas about what constitutes racism and what the appropriate responses to it should be are not valid because they do not take into account the kinds of things uncovered by researchers in the field. And yet, we hear them from people all the time, and it has given us fine ideas such as “reverse racism” (barf again), and not so long ago, “segregated bathrooms are fine.”

            In my opinion, which I realize hardly matters, TST would philosophically benefit a great deal by stripping the words “common sense” from any public literature meant to justify any of our positions, including our own existence. We can do better than that. We are smarter than that, and we have more integrity than that. Even if nobody takes this advice in my lifetime, I will still believe we are better and smarter than this, I’ll just cringe a bit each time I see these words.

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Co-Chapterhead of TST Oregon