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A Poor Master

In a wilderness of common sense, science stands a lonely pinnacle

One of the strongest features of science is that it can correct our seriously flawed cognition and give us an unfiltered view of reality. Most people put a lot of faith into relying on common sense and intuition, but as any psychologist will tell you, this faith is misplaced.

Science helps us to understand the universe by freeing us from a reliance on gut-feelings or unchecked reasoning hopelessly rooted in the unsystematic software of our brains. Common sense, as a product of this software, will never get us as far as we may wish.

Common sense is a poor master…it’s only criterion is that new ideas look like old ones.

Science versus Common Sense

Science, as a way of thinking, possesses many vital qualities for true understanding that common sense does not. Based on observations we make, science operates under theories, constantly revised and checked by experiment. Based on the required validity that we need to make judgments, science tests its own propositions, throwing out the theories which do not fit our world. Science also has controls, or ways of eliminating other explanations that may fit our preconceptions and intuitions but do not adequately explain phenomena. Causation, itself crucial to decision-making and judgment, can only reliably be determined through analytical methods that common sense pretends to involve but does not. Lastly, science rules out the metaphysical (so far). Common sense allows us to believe that ghosts, goblins, and angels run amok throughout our world, themselves causal agents of events in our lives. To suggest that angels cured your disease, and not modern medicine, for example, is exactly why common sense is such a poor master.

We will take all of these components in turn. Hopefully, by the end, you will realize that the chains of intuition and common sense that bind you should be cast off, unless you prefer the darkness of ignorant assumption.

Theory

Theories construct the enterprise of science. A theory is an abstraction that applies to variety of circumstances, explaining relationships and phenomena, based upon objective evidence. For example, evolution is a theory that applies to a wide range of phenomena (the diversity of life, development, etc.), and explains the observations of said phenomena, all of which is based upon evidence. Gravity too is a theory, explaining the phenomena that we observe in interactions of bodies with mass.

To get technical:

Science uses conceptual schemes and theoretical structures built through internal consistency which are empirically tested.

Scientists also realize that these are man-made terms that may or may not exhibit a close relationship to reality (but with objectivity we try our best).

The distinction between this structure of thought and common sense should be, well, common sense. Common sense has no structure to it, is explicitly subjective, and is subject to all manner of cognitive biases. There is no need for testing, replication, or verification when you are reasoning for yourself. No checks for you to pass or fail, no peers reviewing. It is no wonder why science is so much better at explaining things.

Testing/Verification

Unlike common sense or intuition, science systematically and empirically tests theories and hypothesis. This is important when viewed in the light that psychological research shows us that the default mode of human information processing includes the confirmation bias, which is a form of selective testing, and unworthy of scientific thinking.

If unchecked, most people intuitively notice or select ideas, beliefs, or facts that fit within what they already assume the world to be like and dismiss the rest. Common sense reasoning has no problem with the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth because it sure looks like it does, doesn’t it? Humans already feel like they are the center of the universe, why not accept a belief that confirms that notion? Science is free from such constraints.

Controls

Science controls for possibly extraneous sources of influence. The lay public does not control for such possibilities, and therefore the chains of causation and explanation become tangled.

When trying to explain a phenomena, science rigorously excludes factors that may affect an outcome so that it can be sure where the real relationships are. Common sense has no such control. The person who believes that a full moon increases the rate of crime does not control this hypothesis. Without control they may never see that statistics speak to the contrary. Assuming a connection is never as meaningful as proving one.

Correlation and Causation

Science systematically and conscientiously pursues “real” relationships backed by theory and evidence. Common sense does not. Common sense leads us to believe that giving children sugar causes them to be more hyper. Science shows us that this is not the case. We see possible correlations everywhere, but that does not mean much if we can’t prove it. “It seems right” is not enough.

When we use science to actually establish causation, it is for the betterment of society. For a long time the tobacco industry would have us believe that smoking did not lead to lung cancer, it is merely a correlation. Medical science has now shown unequivocally that smoking causes lung cancer. How could common sense ever lead us to this healthy conclusion? Would common sense ever intuit that smoke hurts your lungs or that it contains harmful chemicals? It may seem like common sense now, but remember that hindsight is 20/20. People who began smoking 60 years ago had no clue that it was harmful. Even children smoked back then. Could common sense ever grasp the methodological measures required to prove such a harmful connection? I do not think so. That’s why we use science.

Metaphysics

Science rules out untestable, “metaphysical” explanations where common sense does not. That which cannot be observed (at least tangentially) or tested is of no concern to science. This is why religious-based explanations of scientific concepts, i.e. creationism, is not a science and has no business in the science classroom.

Ghosts and goblins may be thought to be the causes of many a shenanigan, but their reluctance to be tested or observed renders them, at least scientifically, non-existent. If they have no effects that cannot be explained naturally, if they are invisible, if they interact with no one and are only revealed in anecdotes, what is the difference between those qualities and non-existence? Metaphysical explanations so far offer nothing to the understanding of the natural world. Common sense invokes them heavily, see the problem?

Casting Off the Chains

We are just not as smart as we think we are and common sense won’t help rectify that. It did not lead us to invent microwaves, planes, space shuttles, cell phones, satellites, particle accelerators, or skyscrapers, nor did it to the discovery of other galaxies, cures for infectious disease, or radioactivity, science did. Everything that makes your life better than those who came before us is due to science. You would probably not live past 40 if it wasn’t for scientific thinking.

You may amble your way through life, with a common sense master, assuming connections and learning little, but only a scientific structure of thought will teach you about the universe. And what else could you do with your short time in the sun other than contribute to human understanding of the greatest mysteries?

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