Oct 29 2009

Science and the Limits of Common Sense

Published by at 7:34 am under education,psychology

Here’s a research finding on teen behavior that might elicit this response from people: “Well that’s just common sense!”

A new study using brain imaging to study teen behavior indicates that adolescents who engage in dangerous activities have frontal white matter tracts that are less adult in form than their more conservative peers. [bold added]

A pet peeve of mine is when people refer to common sense as some sort of magical conduit to correct answers. It’s common sense!

As for the above research finding, I pulled a fast one. For the actual finding, replace the bold “less” with “more.”

Huh!? Teen brains more adult in form have been associated with riskier behavior? Well that’s not common sense.

While common sense may equip us with a fast, unschooled hunches as to what is true and right and what is not, it has limits. Sometimes those limits are outright intellectually crippling. Fortunately, science is not thus confined. In extreme cases, such as relativity and quantum theories — science will provide us with a knowledge that violently violates unschooled hunches. In less extreme cases we should likewise put greater trust in science.

On my page, “The Two Arms and Four Elements of Science,” I included these thoughts about common sense:

If considered to be inborn knowledge or reasoning ability, there is probably no such thing as common sense. What we call common sense usually refers to basic ideas and knowledge acquired through exposure to a culture. Common sense is thus relative to a culture. (For example, most people in our country would consider it common sense for a woman to avoid walking city streets alone at night. For a woman living in Tokyo, a very safe city, this might not be considered common sense.) Frequently, when a case is based on an appeal to common sense, it reflects common assumptions.

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One Comment to “Science and the Limits of Common Sense”

  1. [...] cases where ‘common sense’ intuition is entirely wrong, as shown by Andrew Bernadin of The Evolving Mind. You should always be aware that your mind may lead you [...]

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