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Un-common sense

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Although common sense is helpful in many situations and guides us in understanding the world around us, it can sometimes seriously undermine our ability to really comprehend it.

It is likely that in order to conserve scarce processing power, our brains evolved to have a kind of fast cache, to provide quick answers to common problems. Apparently good for survival purposes, this mechanism usually produces a strong but unfounded feeling of ‘rightness’, hence being called common sense.

Nearly 60 years ago, Paul Lazarsfeld, an American sociologist, published an irritating analysis concerning a study of over 600.000 American servicemen, conducted by the war department immediately after the second world war. Lazarsfeld listed six seemingly representative findings from the study, each followed by a common sense argument. Take number two: “Men from rural backgrounds were usually in better spirits during their Army life than soldiers from city backgrounds. Rural men were in better physical shape and were also used to harsher living conditions.”

What made the study irritating was that after reading thru about half of the paper, several times nodding in agreement, Lazarsfeld revealed that all six findings were actually exact opposites. Yes, for instance, men from city backgrounds were faring better in combat situations as they had worked previously in teams and generally had higher education.

When we’re looking at the global discussion on climate change, soaring sovereign debt or reactions to horrible violence in Norway, we’re unfortunately often seeing that primeval fast cache in operation. What people say quickly becomes more important than thoroughly collected data and passion-free, scientific research and discourse.

It is important to maintain democracy and people’s irrevocable rights to opinions. However it might be even more critical to collect, store and distribute unopinionated information and understandable research to everyone. Understandable in the sense one of my heroes, late Richard Feynman, said: “If a first-year student can’t understand your physics, you don’t really understand it either.”

This is why disseminating information and research freely is one of the pivotal responsibilities of our democratic governments. Many conspiracy theories, like the ‘climategate’, result from temporary, failed efforts to play down uncomfortable data and research.

It always pays off to have more intelligence information. Clausewitz, 1817. BaseN, 2011.

//Pasi

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