Go to the WDTM? Facebook page and take a gander at the cover photo. There’s a quote (sort of) from Thomas Henry Huxley that states, “Science is simply common sense at its best.” What he really said is probably closer to “science is nothing but trained and organized common sense.” A lot of people, scientists in particular, would disagree with that. Einstein (maybe) said, “Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach eighteen.” Albert and others might argue that common sense, defined by some as “sound judgment derived from experience rather than study,” is the very thing that science strives to correct, as anecdotes can’t compare to the predictive power of statistics. Then again, Merriam-Webster calls common sense “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.” A considered conclusion achieved through observation. Sounds like science to me. So who’s right? Are the two ideas compatible or mutually exclusive? If we already have a common sense idea about something, what’s the point in further studying it?
It’s neat that Huxley, often called “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his aggressive defense of natural selection to anyone who would listen (and more importantly, to those who didn’t want to), is mired in this divide, as the theory of evolution itself is a prime example of how common sense can shift. Before descent was discovered, it was only too obvious that living things have always existed in their current forms. I mean, have you ever seen a turtle turn into a gopher? Chickens have baby chickens, right, not baby cows? Now, even ignoring genetic data, the evidence for evolution seems as plain as the nose on your face. Or the similarities of animal skeletal structure. Or the fossil record. Or antibiotic resistant bacteria.
So it’s of the utmost importance to test everything, even the ideas that seem self-evident on first blush. Especially those. Some of the deepest truths of the universe are so violently counter-intuitive it may seem wondrous that we ever arrived at them. It’s clear from our everyday experience that the Earth is stationary and flat, and that the Sun revolves around us. You can watch it rise and set, for Christ’s sake! And the deeper our understanding gets, the less capable our hunter/gatherer neural networks are of truly fathoming reality. We’re built to know that if a rabbit starts running from Point A to Point B, we can intercept it in-between for a tasty snack. It doesn’t disappear from one place and reappear in another. Like electrons do. Our built-in common sense simply can’t equip us for cerebral situations beyond mere survival, because there’s never been an evolutionary advantage to do so.
The learned common sense passed down by our parents, or gleaned throughout our own lives, is easier to analyze. If it seems like most of such ideas do hold up to critical scrutiny, then what’s the point? Looking through LiveScience’s recently published list of “The 10 Most Obvious Science Findings” might leave you wondering who would dispute that exercise is good for you or that marijuana impairs driving performance, but they’re out there. And you know what? We’re better for it. Public safety issues and possible policy decisions shouldn’t be the subject of simple “just so” stories. Common knowledge also once held that plenty of red meat is good for you and that smoking’s harmless. While much of traditional wisdom may end up vindicated in the end, it’s worth it to weed out the stinkers.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
I tend to fall on Huxley’s side, but I’ll even take it a step below organization and training. At its heart, science is just a guy saying “show me.” This pill lowers cholesterol with fewer side effects? Show me the numbers. Bats can use sound waves to detect prey? Show me how. It should go without saying that you need to see the goods before you accept anything, rather than just taking someone’s word for it. If you wouldn’t buy a used vehicle without a Carfax, you shouldn’t buy into an idea without evidence. That’s just common sense.