Uncommon sense

Common sense is a vague notion. Roughly it means what would be acceptable to most people. Yet how can there be such a thing as common sense in a divided world? And how can a common understanding of the world be achieved in the face of information that is doubly overwhelming—too much to process and also unreliable?

In half a century, we have gone from a dearth of information crucial for an informed electorate, to a flood of information that people ironically cannot use, do not trust, and are prone to misuse. We now rely less (and with more circumspection) on important traditional appraisers of information, such as librarians, teachers, academics and peer-reviewed journals, text-book writers, critics, censors, journalists and newscasters, civil and religious authorities, etc. The Internet, of course, is largely responsible for this change. On the one hand, it has democratized access to information; on the other, it has shifted the burden of interpreting information—from those trained for it onto the unprepared public, which now has little more than common sense to rely upon to decide what sources or information to trust.

Which brings us to a Catch-22: how to use common sense to evaluate information when the formation of common sense depends on a flow of reliable information? How does one get common sense? It was formerly the role of education to decide what information was worthy of transmission to the next generation, and to impart the wisdom of how to use it. (Also, at a time when there existed less specialized expertise, people formerly had a wider general experience and competence of their own to draw upon.) Now there is instant access to a plethora of influences besides the voices of official educators and recognized experts. The nature of education itself is up for grabs in a rapidly changing present and unpredictable future. Perhaps education should now aim at preparation for change, if such is not an oxymoron. That sort of education would mean not learning facts or skills that might soon become obsolete, but meta-skills of how to adapt and how to use information resources. In large part, that would mean how to interpret and reconcile diverse claims.

One such skill is “reason,” meaning the ability to think logically. If we cannot trust the information we are supposed to think about, at least we could trust our ability to think. If we cannot verify the facts presented, at least we can verify that the arguments do not contradict themselves. Training in critical thinking, logic, research protocols, data analysis, and philosophical critique are appropriate preparations for citizenship, if not for jobs. This would give people the socially useful skill to evaluate for themselves information that consists inevitably of the claims of others rather than “facts” naively presumed to be objective. Perhaps that is as close as we can come to common sense in these times.

Since everything is potentially connected to everything else, even academic study is about making connections as well as distinctions. The trouble with academia partly concerns the imbalance between analysis (literally taking things apart) and synthesis (putting back together a whole picture). Intellectual pursuit has come to overemphasize analysis, differentiation, and hair-splitting detail, often to the detriment of the bigger picture. Consequently, knowledge and study become ever more specialized and technical, with generalists reduced to another specialty. The result is an ethos of bickering, which serves to differentiate scholars within a niche more than to sift ideas ultimately for the sake of a greater synthesis. This does not serve as a model of common sense for society at large.

Technocratic language makes distinctions in the name of precision, but obstructs a unifying understanding that could be the basis for common sense. Much technical literature is couched in language that is simply inaccessible to lay people. Often it is spiced with gratuitous equations, graphs, and diagrams, as though sheer quantification or graphic summaries of data automatically guarantee clarity or plausibility, let alone truth. Sometimes the arguments are opaque even to experts outside that field. Formalized language and axiomatic method are supposed to structure thought rigorously, to facilitate deriving new knowledge deductively. Counter-productively, a presentation that serves ostensibly to clarify, support, and expand on a premise often seems to obfuscate even the thinking of those presenting it. How can the public assimilate such information, which deliberately misses the forest for the trees? How can we have confidence in complex argumentation that pulls the wool over the eyes even of its proponents?

Academic writing must meet formal requirements proposed by the editors of journals. There are motions to go through which have little to do with truth. Within such a framework, literary merit and even skill at communication is not required. Awkward complex sentences fulfill the minimal requirements of syntax. While this is frustrating for outsiders, such formalism permits insiders to identify themselves as members of an elite club. The danger is inbreeding within a self-contained realm. When talking to their peers, academics may feel little need to address the greater world.

For the preservation of common sense, an important lay skill might be the ability to translate academese, like legal jargon, into plain language. One must also learn to skim through useless or misleading detail to get to the essential points. Much popular non-fiction, like some academic books, ironically have few main ideas (and sometimes but one), amply fluffed out to book length with gratuitous anecdotes to make it appeal to a wider audience. Learning to recognize the essential and sort the wheat from the chaff now seems like a basic survival skill even outside academia.

Perhaps as a civilization we have simply become too smart for our own good. There is now such a profusion of knowledge that not even the smartest individuals, with the time to read, can keep up with it. Somehow the information bureaucracy works to expand technological production. But does it work to produce wisdom that can direct the use of technology? The means exist for global information sharing and coordination, but is there the political will to do the things we know are required for human thriving?

Part of the frustration of modern times is the sense of being overwhelmed yet powerless. We may suffer in having knowledge without the power to act effectively, as though we had heightened sensation despite physical paralysis. Suffering is a corollary of potential action and control. Suffering can occur only in a central nervous system, which doubles to inform the creature of its situation and provide some way to do something about it. Sensory input is paired with motor output; perception is paired with response.

Cells do not suffer, though they may respond and adapt (or die). It is the creature as a whole that suffers when it cannot respond effectively. If society is considered an organism, individual “cells” may receive information appropriate at the creature level yet be unable to respond to it at that level. Perhaps that is the tragedy of the democratic world, where citizens are expected to be informed and participate (at least through the vote) in the affairs of society at large—and to share its concerns—but are able to act only at the cellular level. To some extent, citizens have the same information available to their leaders, who are often experts only in the art of staying in power. They may have a better idea of what to do, but are not positioned to do it.

Listening to the news is a blessing when it informs you concerning something you can plausibly do. Even then, one must be able to recognize what is actual news and distill it from editorial, ideology, agenda, and hype. Otherwise it is just another source of anxiety, building a pressure with no sensible release. To know what to do, one must also know that it is truly one’s own idea and free decision and not a result of manipulation by others. That should be the role of common sense: to enable one to act responsibly in an environment of uncertainty.

Unfortunately, human beings tend to abhor uncertainty—a dangerous predicament in the absence of reliable information and common sense. The temptation is to latch onto false certainties to avoid the sheer discomfort of not knowing. These can serve as pseudo-issues, whose artificial simplicity functions to distract attention from problems of overwhelming complexity. Pseudo-issues tend to polarize opinion and divide people into strongly emotional camps, whose contentiousness further distracts attention from the true urgencies and the cooperative spirit required to deal with them. While common sense may be sadly uncommon, it remains our best hope.