Common Sense Is Overrated

I won’t be popular for saying this, but what the hell. I don’t write these articles to make myself popular.

Right now it appears a lot of people believe that what this country really needs is a good dose of common sense. We should stop getting entangled in the nitty gritty details of things, stop listening to so-called “experts” with their big words and their complicated arguments, and just trust ourselves to know what we should do. After all, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? Politicians have kept it from us all these years, tried to pull the wool over our eyes and confuse us, tried to make sure that only the elite have a voice, but not anymore. This time we’re going to do what should have been done years ago, and to hell with all of them!

It’s an appealing sentiment in a lot of ways. But it’s also, I would argue, badly wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. Common sense is certainly useful in a lot of situations, and I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing in itself. I could do with a bit more of it myself, I think. It’s great for getting you through the grind of day-to-day life with the minimum of fuss, and for solving problems that are similar to ones you’ve encountered before. But for deciding how to (for example) run a country, for making the really big decisions and looking beyond the obvious, it’s pretty lousy.

Let’s put one thing to rest before we go any further: people need to stop taking it so personally whenever anyone dares to suggest that someone who’s devoted their life to working in a particular field might know more about it than the people who haven’t. That isn’t elitism or snobbery, that’s just stating a fact. The reality is that many areas of life are so complicated these days that it takes a lot of time and a lot of research to properly get to grips with them. That’s just the way it is. Stating that most people aren’t realistically going to put in that time and effort for any given subject isn’t an insult, it’s simply a recognition that people have lives and don’t usually have time to learn about more than a handful of topics in real depth, no matter how intelligent they might be.

It’s undeniably true that human civilisation has got far more complex over the past decades, to the point where even experts in a certain field can’t realistically know everything there is to know about that field anymore. I remember years ago my girlfriend at the time was complaining about Microsoft Word behaving weirdly and wrecking the formatting of one of her assignments. It amused her greatly when I dismissively said “Yeah, Microsoft Word just does whatever the hell it wants”. She imagined that being a computer professional myself, I ought to have a perfect understanding of Word’s behaviour… but the truth is, that version of Word was probably made up of hundreds of thousands or even millions of lines of code, code which I’d never seen since it wasn’t relevant to my own work. Even the programmers who originally wrote it probably won’t be able to remember the reasons behind all of its behaviour without going back and looking at the code again.

Computer software and hardware is just mind-bogglingly, unbelievably complex these days, and it’s the same in many other fields as well. It wasn’t always this way though. Back in the early days of civilisation’s progress, new inventions and discoveries tended to be simpler and more intuitive. Even if not everyone could have had the spark of inspiration required to invent the wheel, almost everyone would be able to see how it worked, how to use it and why it was such a good idea once it was there in front of them. This was also true to an extent with early industrial technology such as steam engines: although it took a genius to envisage them before they existed, the concepts that make them work are relatively simple and understandable. Not so today: how many people really understand how a nuclear reactor works, or how a computer processor works, or for that matter how the global financial system works?

It’s easy to see all this complexity as a bad, intimidating thing, but is it really? I would argue that no, it’s actually a good thing… the reason we have so much complexity now is largely because we’ve solved most of the simple problems at this stage, so naturally what’s left is the more complicated problems. If anything, the fact that we as a civilisation have come this far should be cause for celebration, not lamentation.

It’s true that there are downsides to complexity, of course. Some fields (economics comes to mind) have got so complicated that even their best experts struggle to understand them, and any field that’s too complicated for most ordinary people to understand is liable to be viewed with suspicion (whether deserved or not). But to me, that isn’t a reason to throw away all our progress and go back to making decisions on the most shallow, simplistic grounds instead. It’s a reason to come up with better ways of dealing with the complexity. That goal isn’t necessarily as hopeless as it may sound: going back to computers, they may be vastly more complex than they were thirty years ago, but they’re also vastly easier to use, thanks to software engineers using some of the computers’ power to hide most of the complexity when possible.

“Common sense” would never have got us to where we are now. If everyone had always lived their lives by common sense, we’d still be living in caves. Before aviation existed, common sense would have told you that it was impossible for humans to fly, but it obviously isn’t. Before the era of modern medicine, common sense would have said that we couldn’t cure diseases by swallowing tiny little pills, or prevent other diseases by sticking needles in our arms, but we do those things every day now. What’s more, common sense would have said it was a waste of time to work towards any of that stuff, and that people should spend their time on something useful instead, like hunting enough animals to feed the tribe for another day.

And this is why I’m so suspicious of the “common sense” solutions put forward in politics. There are certainly a lot of them around these days, mostly put forward by loudmouth right wing types: we should leave the EU to save money, because it’s just common sense that paying them all that money leaves us with less. We should send home all the immigrants, because it’s just common sense that life would be better for British people then. We should stop doing anything about climate change, because it’s just common sense that it’s not really happening. We should stop paying benefits to the mentally ill and force them to work, because it’s just common sense that they’re faking it. We should stop pandering to transgender people, because it’s just common sense that they’re really attention seekers or perverts and don’t deserve our help. We should bring back the death penalty, because it’s just common sense that it must be cheaper and a better deterrent than jail.

No thanks. I’d rather listen to the experts (who incidentally disagree which pretty much all of that last paragraph), flawed as they may be. Then there’d be at least a chance of not dragging my country back into the dark ages.

I also think it’s interesting that the politicians who apparently want to listen to “common sense” are very selective about which common sense policies they’ll support. For example, I could suggest that it would be common sense to tax the rich more and give the money to the poor to eliminate poverty. Or that it would be common sense to prioritise the environment over the economy, since we can’t even survive without a healthy environment. As far as I can see those more left wing suggestions are at least as much “common sense” as the right wing ones I listed above. But try suggesting them to Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, and I think you’d find they’re quite happy to go down the “Well, it may sound like a good idea, but it’s not really as simple as that…” route when it suits them.

The truth is, the Brexit supporters are appealing to “common sense” not because they believe it’s a good idea, but because it’s all they have left at this point. They know their arguments don’t hold any water with people who actually understand the realities of the situation, so instead they’re attacking the very concept of understanding, trying to make out that knowledge and insight are somehow elitist and undemocratic.

And sadly, judging from the recent polls, it looks as if they’re succeeding 🙁 .

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