Mar 22

Science > Common Sense

This started out as a quick Google+ post, but the more I wrote, the more I had to say and I thought it would work better as a short blog post. Earlier today I was struggling with some text at work so I took a break to scroll through my twitter feed and give my subconscious a chance to mung on the words that were giving me fits. As I scrolled through my timeline, I came across a tweet by Philip Bump (retweeted by @jonrog1):

I didn’t really want to click on the link. I had a pretty good idea of what I’d find, but I did anyway… train wrecks and all that jazz.

Most of the article just made me annoyed, disgusted, and depressed. But this line in particular made me angry:

Maybe because we have learned to be skeptical of ‘scientific’ claims, particularly those at war with our common sense

Santorum is basically saying that science is a scam, perpetrated by scientists, intended to pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of the population to the furtherance of their dogmatic ideologies. But “regular folks” are too smart for that kind of thing. They’ve got common sense and they can see right through those scheming scientists.


I know we often say that ignorance is bliss, but when did it become fashionable? When did how little you know about a given topic become the indicator that your perspective should be highly valued?

Contrary to what Santorum thinks, science is not “ideology”.

Yes, there is debate in science.

And, yes, there are scientists who lose sight of their responsibility as stewards of discovery and become comfortable with what they know. But guess what? That happens in EVERY field, not just science. And it happens because they are human; as we age, many of us tend to become comfortable not only with what we do know, but with what we don’t know and we stop thinking outside-the-box (to borrow a phrase) not so much because we’re okay with the limitations of the box but because we’ve forgotten the box is there.

This is okay for humans (although it can cause generational clashes in fields where change happens rapidly). This is not okay for science. Which is why science is rife with new theories.

All the time.

We don’t see these theories in schools because only the theories that have passed the most rigor and have the largest buy-in from the scientific community make it into textbooks; the level of associated scrutiny means the theories have merit. It means at this moment in time those theories represent science’s best guess for how things work. It’s the rigors of the scientific method and peer review, the regular integration of new ideas, and the unification of cross-disciplinary fields that makes science powerful.

Teachers should absolutely include the fact that evolution is still considered a theory. Case in point: human evolutionary theory got a huge kick in the rear around 2009 when a skeleton, dubbed Ardi, was discovered. It’s over 1 million years older than any previous skeleton and has shaken some of the founding principles in human evolution (namely the idea of a missing link).

But discoveries like this don’t mean evolution, as a whole, is wrong. It means we don’t understand some parts of it as well as we thought we did. There may be times where finding new information completely destroys an old theory, but more often than not the new information just helps to refine it.

When it comes to explaining how life adapts to changes, evolution is still the best theory we have that:

    • can be backed up by physical evidence,
    • holds up under peer review, and
    • can be reproduced in the lab.

Maybe, one day, someone will come along and up-end everything we think we know about how evolution works and a new, stronger, better theory will take its place. But that hasn’t happened yet.

That’s not a weakness of science.
That is its strength.

The ability to assimilate new information.
The ability to modify theories and change ideas based on verifiable evidence.
The ability to engage in healthy discussion and debate with peers.

Even beyond the need to provide people with a basic understanding of the world, these are the reasons why we teach science in school. And it’s why we don’t teach “common sense”. Common sense can’t be argued with or peer reviewed because it’s not based on evidence.

Common sense is called “common” because it is widely believed not because there’s any inherent value in it. The pervasive (and growing) belief that the average person on the street somehow has more innate understanding of a complex topic than someone who has spent their life studying it – whether that subject is science, construction, or dancing – is mind boggling to me.

This attitude (along with basic technological ignorance) is part of what made people willing to sign off on SOPA even though they didn’t understand it: their “common sense” told them the nerds1 were overreacting.

Limiting a woman’s right to vote used to be “common sense”, should we bring that back too?

You know what?
Don’t answer that.

Given all the recent attacks on women’s health, I’m pretty sure I already know the answer.

1during the SOPA amendment hearings the term “experts” was very quickly cast aside and the pro-SOPA contingent insisted on referring to Networking and Software Engineers, Tech Company representatives, and industry founders as “nerds”. Once I can find a cached copy of the hearings, I will link to some of the relevant moments.


  1. Jan Chavis

    This is one of the reasons that Rick Santorum is not going anywhere!

    1. thegoblin

      I’m not so sure. There are clearly people out there who are drawn to this attitude and he’s not out of the race yet. I’m REALLY hoping Americans Elect offers some useful alternatives this election =\

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