Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Political Problems Resist Common Sense Solutions

Duncan Watts concludes,
As it turns out, the key is common sense itself. Common sense is exquisitely adapted to handling the kind of complexity that arises in everyday situations, such as how to behave at work versus in front of your children versus in the pub with your mates. And because it works so well in these situations, we're inclined to trust it.
But situations involving corporations, cultures, markets, nations and global institutions exhibit a very different kind of complexity. Large-scale social problems necessarily involve anticipating or managing the behaviour of many individuals in diverse contexts over extended periods of time. Under these circumstances, the ability that Lazarsfeld highlighted of common sense to rationalise equally one behaviour and also its opposite causes us to commit all manner of prediction errors.
Yet because of the way we learn from experiences - even ones that are never repeated - the failings of common sense reasoning are rarely apparent to us. Rather, they manifest simply as "things we didn't know at the time" but which seem obvious in hindsight.
The paradox of common sense, then, is that even as it helps us make sense of the world, it can actively undermine our ability to understand it.
In short, common sense works in common situations but not in complex ones.  It also seems that common sense plays into people's preconceived notions in a way that makes people more stubborn.  In that way common sense may be part of the fabric that allows people to resist facts as Chris Mooney has documented.

Duncan's analysis indicates that one should be as skeptical of appeals to common sense as one is of facts used outside of context.

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