You have heard people say it many times. You have seen them express it or share it through memes on their social media feeds. Perhaps you have even said it too. I certainly have. The wording may vary, but the message is generally the same and takes the form of a mild insult. It usually goes something like this. “Some folks just don’t have any common sense.” There are variations of the statement, such as “They don’t even know how to come in out of the rain.” Sometimes it takes the form of a more serious complaint in reaction to some sweeping change or even in resistance to a crisis the society or even the world is facing. “What we need now more than ever is a little common sense.”
In my experience, people who most often observe a lack of common sense around them firmly believe, of course, that they are blessed with an abundance of the stuff. For some, it is simply a defense mechanism. For others, it is a point of pride, not to mention a sign of arrogance. Then there are people who take comfort in believing that book knowledge did not succeed in erasing their share of natural-born intelligence. In any case, we seem to crave common sense because we are convinced that it is the best solution to all our problems. I’m not so sure.
Looking back through human history, I am struck by how often uncommon sense helped our species survive, evolve, advance, and even thrive. Far too often, the call for common sense parallels a determination to maintain the status quo or even to regress from complexity to simplicity, usually for the sake of familiarity, security, or comfort. Admittedly, there are plenty of times when the simplest solution is the best alternative, but not always. I would argue that the bigger or more complicated the problem, the more likely it is that uncommon sense will fix it.
Common sense told early humans that fire is a destructive force that is extremely dangerous.
Uncommon sense showed them controlling fire provides warmth, light, protection, and a safe way to eat many types of food, especially meat.
Common sense told early civilizations that flooding rivers destroy crops.
Uncommon sense showed them that controlling floods with canals, berms, dikes, catch basins, and other measures can transform deserts into farmland.
Common sense told our ancient ancestors that the world was flat based on their limited perception of the planet.
Uncommon sense from astronomers of classical civilizations showed them that the earth is a sphere.
Well sure, you might say, it took innovation and critical thinking to advance civilization and create the modern world, but we live in the post-industrial age now. Nobody from the 21st century with any common sense would be fooled by legends of the Middle Ages, by quack medicine of centuries past, silly urban myths, or conspiracy theories, right? It never ceases to amaze me how people who are otherwise perfectly reasonable will adamantly choose to accept the simplest answer because it just makes sense to them – and nothing else does. “It’s just common sense,” they say. The level of their certainty is almost always directly linked to a personal stake they have in the matter: financially, politically, morally, etc. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
The global population is faring better now than it ever has. Infant mortality rates continue to drop as life expectancy rises. Advances in medicine, agriculture, and technology are pulling more people out of poverty every day and improving their standard of living exponentially. However, we cannot ignore the real possibility of disastrous setbacks and worldwide threats to the future of humanity. And yet, that is exactly what so many of us are doing. We refuse to face serious challenges that will impact future generations, and are even causing major problems now, because doing so is inconvenient. We ignore the advice and warnings from some of the brightest minds in the world – the people with uncommon sense — choosing instead to follow our common sense, which can prove to be woefully inadequate.
Common sense tells us that we had an unusually cold winter; therefore, global warming is not real.
Uncommon sense has proven that average global temperatures continue to rise with devastating effects now and even worse to come.
Common sense tells us that weather is unpredictable and that temperatures have been rising and falling for thousands of years.
Uncommon sense demonstrates how carbon emissions and rising CO2 levels are rapidly changing our climate, which is different than weather.
Common sense tells us that if you don’t have symptoms, then you aren’t sick, can’t spread a virus, and don’t need to take precautions like wearing a mask or limiting social contact.
Uncommon sense proves that you can still spread a virus even though you have no symptoms, which makes fighting a pandemic even more difficult.
Common sense says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Uncommon sense knows that, by the time we realize it’s broken, it may be too late to fix it.
I truly value common sense. As individuals, it helps us navigate a dangerous world and keeps us safe, most of the time. True enough, some people are more skilled at developing and using it than others. As necessary as it is though, common sense has its limitations. The problem with common sense is, well, it’s common. It sets the bar rather low, especially when the challenges we face are far greater than we can handle on our own. Lately more than ever, I think we are way overdue for some uncommon sense.