Common Sense

Damon Linker on appeals to common sense in American politics is worth reading, even if he overlooks the fact that like all rhetorical tropes, celebrating the intuition of the American people is a thoroughly bipartisan tendency (FDR: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails: admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”) But I wonder if something has changed since William Jennings Bryan or Roosevelt or even Reagan asked the electorate to ignore the received wisdom of eggheads in favor of their own instincts.

We live in an increasingly complex age. Instead of enhancing public discourse, the spread of information often overwhelms our ability to process new ideas. A few weeks ago, Freddie argued that the inherent complexity of the Afghanistan debate demonstrates the fallacy of empire-building in an egalitarian, democratic society, as the electorate simply isn’t equipped to parse the merits of occupation vs. withdrawal or counter-insurgency vs. counter-terrorism. His criticism is telling, but isn’t it equally true of just about every domestic policy dispute out there? If the electorate can’t handle the debate over Afghanistan, are voters really prepared to assess the likelihood of catastrophic global warming or the desirability of the health care public option?

I cringe whenever Mark Steyn or some other conservative bomb thrower takes the “Climategate” scandal as evidence of a world government conspiracy aimed at eradicating freedom. But I’m almost sympathetic to their credulous fans, who haven’t mastered the intricacies of climatology but do know there’s something awfully fishy about those leaked emails. The enduring popularity of the “death panels” myth is also symptomatic of reasonably informed voters who haven’t the time or inclination to read the latest think tank study grappling with an incredibly complex health care debate.

The divide between voters and policy-makers has been explored elsewhere and is probably an inevitable consequence of politics in any egalitarian democracy. But as society becomes more complex, so does policy-making, and the gulf between the electorate’s intuition and sophisticated expert analysis continues to grow. Perhaps the most significant example of this divide is the now-infamous bank bailout, which remains incredibly unpopular despite its near-unanimous support among political and financial elites.

Linker seems largely unconcerned by all this, and indeed is more worried by the prospect of “common sense” infecting a political platform than any disconnect between appeals to populism and actual policy. That voters should be reasonably well-equipped to make informed judgments, however, strikes me as pretty integral to the health of our democracy. In some cases, we may be able to avoid the problem of deliberation altogether (we could withdraw from Afghanistan, for example). Other circumstances make a clash between common sense and expert opinion almost inevitable. In the midst of a systemic economic crisis, we didn’t have the luxury of plugging our ears and ignoring the debate over the bank bailout. And with other, equally complex challenges looming on the horizon (health care, entitlement reform, climate change), the problem of democratic deliberation seems more pressing, not less.

If I had a solution to this dilemma, I probably wouldn’t be writing overlong blog posts. But I will offer one modest suggestion: In the wake of “Climategate” and a bank bailout dominated by financial insiders, the integrity and transparency of expert deliberation is more important than ever. On many issues, I am more than willing to defer to informed opinion. The pettiness revealed in the leaked climate emails and the borderline dishonesty of Bernanke and Paulsen in the midst of the economic crisis, however, makes it more difficult than ever to trust our governing institutions. I don’t want to rely solely on “common sense,” but given the choice, I’ll take my own intuitions over self-interested insiderism any day.

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20 thoughts on “Common Sense

  1. It gets much worse than stolen emails!

    Amazingly, the data are in the faces of Man-Made Climate Change supporters and they still refuse to acknowledge the evidence. But, then again, someone once said that the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.

    Now, Al Gore PUBLICLY states Mantle temperatures are MILLIONS of DEGREES. The man doesn’t have the morality, decency, and/or courage to publicly admit he was WRONG. SO WHY SHOULD these scientists admit they are wrong? They can’t, because if they do, the gig is up. “Make no mistake, this event is not revenge, it’s the reckoning”.

    These same scientists threatened my job with the US Geological Survey when trying to publish a study showing with higher confidence that global temperature changes were natural and caused solely by Earth’s physical processes. Additionally, these same scientists would not discuss or refute the science and facts presented. Instead, they took two days to personally insult and attack me and the following is what I perceived as personal intimidation and a threat to call my USGS supervisor for doing this study. When someone uses words like “Does your boss know what your doing” in the context of this event, they’re going after your JOB.
    QUOTE
    “264
    John Mashey says:
    30 June 2007 at 1:04 AM
    re: #261: Chuck: you can stop worrying. Tindall has been at USGS for while,……………………………………..
    Mr. Moran, if you’re still watching:
    I have read USGS 370.735.5 and I hope you (and James Tindall) have.
    Do managers SAF and LE HB know about this? Any constructive comments?”
    UNQUOTE
    From: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/200
    If my study and theory were not plausible and a potential explanation of global temperature variability, then why would RealClimate.org do what they did in their posts? Not very professional for PhDs. Additionally, there are many other areas on that website where conversations took place. On 25 November 2009 at 12:15 PM, I tried posting comments on RealClimate.org concerning this matter. That website refused the posts; another attempt to silence objective parties and since they were the ones that threatened my job…..

    I always knew that when man-made global climate change was shown as insignificant that people would lose faith, note the word “FAITH”, in science. But this event and exposure is by far worse for the science community; but “Truth is the daughter of Time (Francis Bacon)”.

    Nevertheless, the bigger question is when and where will next big lie and mass manipulation occur? With Job Creation, our Economy, or the Financial and Monetary Systems?

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  2. Too often common sense means nothing more then you agree with somebody’s point of view. I have heard multiple people, unfortunately sometimes standing behind me in a line, say that since it is cold that particular day GW just doesn’t make sense to them. Well that may be common sense to them but it is also painfully stupid.

    I just don’t know how to separate “real” common sense from somebody’s opinion. And if I could, I still want to know expert opinion on a lot of things. My guess is that if you go to a cardiologist for an exam and he says that various fancy tests show you have a problem most people will trust the tests and the doctor instead of their common sense about the functioning of their heart. A big part of that is the common sense argument is based more on supporting your own instincts against the opinion of people you don’t want to believe. And those people you don’t want to believe are likely to be people who are far away and you have a culture based distrust of. I think Linker spot on with his view on how the common sense trope was used by politicians to sway people. I guess I trust common sense more if the person has shown they also understand the science or facts in the matter.

    PS It seems just plain good old fashioned American common sense to me that since there are four major labs with data sets regarding GW ( the now infamous east anglia lab along with NASA, NOAA and a lab in Japan) and all their data is similar that climategate is a tempest in a teapot. Even you completely excluded the east anglia data, there are still three separate labs that support the conclusions about AGW. I’m guessing that will not seem like common sense to other people.

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    • Look at the immediate responses to the leaked emails, however.

      Imagine if the responses were something like “those so-called ‘scientists’ have betrayed the trust of millions of people and need to be punished as quickly as possible and this demonstrates nothing more than a need for more transparency, more openness, and more discussion!”

      Instead, the responses were similar to what the Bush Administration did in response to a whistleblower.

      This makes the dynamic appear, to those without specialized scientific knowledge, like just another political fight between two groups of political people.

      The dynamic is one that appears identical to a fight about the funding of commercials telling people to vote no on Prop 8, rather than a discussion of science.

      Marshall McLuhan covered this. “The medium is the message.”

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      • You are criticizing the PR handling of the situation by scientists. Scientists who are not trained in PR. It just doesn’t seem all common senselike to have the PR abilities of scientists sway opinion on a complex subject like AGW.

        I can guarantee you that scientists or people well read in the history of science will tell you that science has never been free of politics, in fighting, pettiness and every other unfortunate characteristic of humans.

        If all common sense means is just something to back up our own prejudices, beliefs and what we want to believe then it is nothing worth while.

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        • Not just the scientists, the ideologues who understand the data about as well as the “denialists” do but chose a side anyway.

          When the information came out that data was destroyed in response to a FOIA request, the response was questioning the provenance of the information that the data was destroyed in response to a FOIA request, rather than dealing with the fact that data was destroyed in response to a FOIA request.

          This makes it seem like “two sides”, neither of which is particularly interested in science.

          The medium is the message.

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          • but what does that have to do with common sense? what does that have to do with the point i raised about three other seperate labs having data sets that show the same thing as the east anglia lab? I only raised the AGW example as a situation where people would have very different ideas of what seemed like common sense, so CS would seem useless.

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            • The trouble is that the value of expert opinion goes only insofar as people are willing to trust the experts. When experts act like insiders, covering things up and doing everything they can to keep dissenting opinion on the outside, they lose that trust by making it appear that their expert opinions – whether or not they are actually correct – are merely self-serving political statements. Nothing in the e-mails remotely disproves AGW, but it does deeply undermine the basis for public trust of global warming scientists. In order for the public to trust experts, it must believe that the experts’ opinions are objective and apolitical rather than merely an expression of political preferences. This is, to say the least, a problem.

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            • It is common sense that when you find that 4 people agree with each other and you find out that one of them was lying that you immediately begin to distrust the other 3.

              That is common sense.

              It may be wrong. It may be right. It may be a bit of both. It’s common, however.

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          • “When the information came out that data was destroyed in response to a FOIA request…”

            What data was destroyed? Last I heard (a) the original data was still in the hands of the various weather services from which that climate lab had bought copies (much of which came under restrictions on copying and forwarding), and (b) not even the copies were destroyed.

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  3. I thought the reason Algore said the things he does, is because he’s “not right.” You shouldn’t make fun of the mentally handicapped.
    So you guys thought he was telling the truth….hmm.

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  4. When quoting FDR on common sense, you’re talking about a bygone era. He might have also used a term like “Yankee ingenuity,” also bye bye. The core is much diminished nowadays; splintered into thousands of interest groups, lobbyists, blogs.

    Re: global warming. When did it start and is every year at least a fraction of a degree warmer than the year before? No one can deny that glaciers are retreating, huge chunks are breaking off the Ross Ice Shelf, etc. But how much is nature and how much man made, with heavy economic penalties to correct?

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  5. Will: “… the borderline dishonesty of Bernanke and Paulsen in the midst of the economic crisis, …”

    What borderline dishonesty? Paulsen was a Goldman Sachs CEO; he made sure that the terms of the government bailout were very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very generous to Goldman Sachs.

    Bernanke is somebody who decided that once the bailout was done, that there’s nothing more that the Fed need to about the current recession (except for giving bankers guarantees).

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