Uncommon Sense

Let’s talk about common sense.

“Common sense” is one of those underpinnings of democracy that we take for granted. Basically, it hinges on this concept: The majority of people will agree that certain things are true. Those things are then defined as “common sense.” And common sense becomes our reference point for what is right and what is wrong.

But what if the very concept of common sense isn’t true? That was what researchers Duncan Watts and Mark Whiting set out to explore.

Duncan Watts is one of my favorite academics. He is a computational social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m fascinated by network effects in our society, especially as they’re now impacted by social media. And that pretty much describes Watt’s academic research “wheelhouse.”

According to his profile, he’s “interested in social and organizational networks, collective dynamics of human systems, web-based experiments, and analysis of large-scale digital data, including production, consumption, and absorption of news.”



Duncan, you had me at “collective dynamics.”

I’ve cited his work in several columns before, notably his deconstruction of marketing’s ongoing love affair with so-called influencers. A previous study from Watts shot several holes in the idea of marketing to an elite group of “influencers.”

Whiting and Watts took 50 claims that would seem to fall into the category of common sense. They ranged from the obvious (“a triangle has three sides”) to the more abstract (“all human beings are created equal”). They then recruited an online panel of participants to rate whether the claims were common sense or not. Claims based on science were more likely to be categorized as common sense. Claims about history or philosophy were less likely to be identified as common sense.

What did they find? Well, apparently common sense isn’t very common. Their report says: “We find that collective common sense is rare: at most a small fraction of people agree on more than a small fraction of claims.” Less than half of the 50 claims were identified as common sense by at least 75% of respondents.

Now, I must admit, I’m not really surprised by this. We know we're part of a pretty polarized society. It's no shock we share little in the way of ideological common ground.

Still, there's a fascinating potential reason why common sense is actually quite uncommon: We define common sense based on our own realities, and what is real for me may not be real for you. We determine our own realities by what we perceive to be real, and increasingly, we perceive the “real” world through a lens shaped by technology and media -- both traditional and social.

Here is where common sense gets confusing. Many things -- especially abstract things -- have subjective reality. They are not really provable by science. Take the idea that all human beings are created equal. We may believe that, but how do we prove it? What does “equal” mean?

So when someone appeals to our common sense (usually a politician), just what are they appealing to? It’s not a universally understood fact that everyone agrees on. It’s typically a framework of belief that is probably only agreed on by a relatively small percent of the population. This really makes it a type of marketing, completely reliant on messaging and targeting the right market.

Common sense isn’t what it once was. Or perhaps it never was either common, or sensible.

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