Common Sense Is At Least As Important As Science

We’ve all struggled to help somebody while they insisted on doing something illogical, suboptimal, or just plain senseless. Whether we care to admit it or not, we’ve all done the same things too. With the anti-science/pro-science crowds getting all flustered by the headlines lately, it’s a good time to step back and remember the importance of common sense.

As a rule, mostly good decisions are better than mostly bad ones, most of the time. We evolved to operate this way. Just like birds don’t read textbooks to learn to fly, people don’t optimally solve for everything they do. It’s important to remember this when we’re helping people make decisions. Sometimes we have to let them sin a little. Sometimes we have to help them find the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Rory Sutherland nails it in “The Danger of Following ‘the Science,’”

I have decided to divorce my wife after 31 years on scientific grounds. Though perfectly happy, on reassessing my original decision to enter matrimony it has emerged that at no point was that choice subject to peer review, there was no randomised control trial, the experiment could not be replicated and the data-set on which I based my decision failed to provide the levels of statistical confidence required.

We live a lot of life subject to non-scientific standards. We shouldn’t expect ourselves or others to suddenly rush to apply extreme rigor or optimization algorithms. Not they science can’t help us and not that we shouldn’t learn to apply it, but like he picked his wife and the migrating birds without advanced physics degrees, we have to know where our tools are best used for what outcomes. He continues (emphasis added),

An insistence on the scientific method has costs as well as benefits — it is slow and may reduce the solution to those actions you can easily quantify or justify in advance. There is, after all, a good reason why humans have evolved decidedly unscientific instincts for decision-making: in the messy world we inhabit, the facts that are available are usually not important, and the facts that are important are usually not available.

Science matters and so does common sense. Science is the best toolbox our collective brains have to help us understand the world around us. We need both. When it comes to solving problems or helping others to solve theirs, we have to remember the choice – not just the answer but the act of choosing it – is one part soul and another part spreadsheet.

The target we are trying to hit in the real world target is never perfect. Our honest objective is to find a reasonable path to an agreement people will stick to, much like Sutherland’s marriage example. Professionally, we have to remember to aim for the mostly good, avoid the mostly bad, and accept that most of the rest will take care of itself, outside of our exact control or even perfect understanding.

Here’s to common sense.

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