August 13, 2005


In defense of common sense (John Horgan, International Herald Tribune, August 13th, 2005)

In the midst of all this hoopla, I feel compelled to deplore one aspect of Einstein's legacy: the widespread belief that science and common sense are incompatible. In the pre-Einstein era, T.H. Huxley could define science as "nothing but trained and organized common sense." But quantum mechanics and relativity shattered our common-sense notions about how the world works.

The theories ask us to believe that an electron can exist in more than one place at the same time, and that space and time are not rigid but rubbery. These sense-defying propositions have withstood a century's worth of painstaking experimental tests.

As a result, many scientists came to see common sense as an impediment to progress not only in physics but also in other fields. Elevating this outlook to the status of dogma, the British biologist Lewis Wolpert declared in his influential 1992 book "The Unnatural Nature of Science," "I would almost contend that if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn't science." Wolpert's view is widely shared. When I invoke common sense to defend or - more often - criticize a theory, scientists invariably roll their eyes.

Scientists' contempt for common sense has two unfortunate implications. One is that preposterousness, far from being a problem for a theory, is a measure of its profundity. The other, even more insidious implication is that only scientists are really qualified to judge the work of other scientists.

Perhaps the greatest modern threat to freedom and a vibrant, resilient community life is the relentless campaign of a scientific establishment increasingly freed from the constraints of empirical testing to convince ordinary citizens that their daily lives and experiences teach them nothing they can safely rely upon and, in fact, are an impediment to “true” knowledge.

Posted by Peter Burnet at August 13, 2005 7:04 AM

Einstein himself subscribed to the "organized common sense" model.

Science is based on commensense princioples:

1. If it happens, it must be possible.

2. Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

(As Sherlock Holmes said in The Sign of Four.) (Of course, the flaw in principle 2 is it leaves out the inconceivable.)

It turns out that systematic application of these commonsense principles, leads to conflicts with common sense at the level of phenomena, particularly those which are not commonly experienced. So you can apply common sense to your epistemological principles, or to subatomic phenomena, but not both.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at August 13, 2005 11:09 AM

The real problem is all the so-called social scientists and glorified psychiatrists who are jealous and wish their professions had the same basis in mathematics and in the real world as real science, instead of the malleable and politicized fantasies they actually are. And at the same time, they do everything they can to infect true science with their subjectivity and manipulative dishonesty (see "global warming" and "endangered species" for examples.)

As for "common sense", the flaw is that too many of those who think they know how to apply it limit themselves to their own personal experience and unaided senses, especially in areas, like quantum mechanics, where we have no senses or personal experiences, but must build the senses first and then gain experience observing reality at that level. If reality doesn't match with their "common sense", then reality is wrong. If they can's see, hear, taste or feel something, then it doesn't exist, or failure of the artificial sense, if not outright fraud. (Both of which are attitudes identical to that found on the Left when it comes to politics and economics.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 13, 2005 12:20 PM