Thursday, May 1, 2008

Common Sense / Horse Sense

One of my coworkers, a fellow about my age, likes to harp on the foolishness of academics compared to regular folks like (apparently) himself. “Went to college,” he says complacently of some of the students, “but didn’t learn a thing.” It’s true, he’s a practical person, with technical training and some college, and I envy him the knowledge he has that I don’t. But then, I feel the same way about everyone who knows something I don’t, which is just about everybody. I wish I could open the hood of a car and know everything my father could know by looking and listening and poking around in there. He could also hunt and fish, grow vegetables, do carpentry and painting, and more – any number of practical, useful things that I never applied myself to learn. My coworker has a lot of the same skills and knowledge, and he reminds me sometimes of my father. (He also reminds me of my younger brother, who is more like our father in this respect than any of the rest of us).

But I’ve learned to be skeptical about “common sense”, as so many people call it. I’ve pointed out to my coworker that “common sense” sometimes means “what everybody knows,” and what everybody knows is often false. And non-academics don’t necessarily have good sense: I’ve known too many people who got no further than high school, yet can’t hold a job, won’t walk out of abusive relationships, can’t pay the rent even when they have money, to believe that lack of education makes you smarter. What you learn in school is something else; it doesn’t take other knowledge away from you. It may be useful for other ends, or it may be an end in itself.

My coworker recently told me that the Constitution forbids the income tax, for example – a fairly popular myth among the Real People, I’ve found, but a myth nonetheless. (Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution declares that “No capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken”, and the Sixteenth Amendment explicitly grants to Congress the power to lay and collect income taxes; but even more telling, my coworker seemed to have trouble grasping that amendments alter the Constitution, and can override its provisions.)

He also told me that Charles Darwin wrote that if any biological unit smaller than the cell were ever discovered, his theory of natural selection would collapse beyond repair. I can’t say for certain that Darwin never wrote this, but thanks to the power of the Internet I could search the full text of two different editions of The Origin of Species, and the few references I found to cells don’t say anything like this. I found, though, that Darwin did say something similar on some other topics – but this was a rhetorical move he used before showing that his theory could explain what his critics might think it couldn’t explain.

To his credit, my coworker acknowledged, when I told him what I found in Darwin, that he’d probably remembered things wrong. As I get older, I find that I have to go back and recheck what I think I remember, because my memory is so faulty. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a function of age, though, as anyone who spends time around children will recognize: their memories are also highly porous and distorting. At most it’s just a result of trying to remember things I read forty or more years ago – hardly surprising that I don’t remember it accurately at such a remove.

I don’t have much common sense, and that seems like a good thing to me. I’ve found so often that what was obvious to most people was not obvious to me (and vice versa), and that I did well to trust my intuition, because what was obvious to most people was frequently false. It was obvious to most people, when I was growing up, that Negroes were not the same as white people and couldn’t be equal; it was obvious that women and men were fundamentally different -- and women just naturally couldn’t throw a baseball or fix an engine or be a philosopher, while men just naturally couldn’t cook or clean house or change a diaper; it was obvious that homosexuals were at best weird, doomed creatures who could never be happy. It was obvious that we were in Vietnam because our allies there had asked us to help them defend themselves against Communist aggression, and it was obvious that Americans who criticized that war were at best misusing the precious freedom of speech Americans have (but should never use); at worst they were dirty Reds who wanted Ho Chi Minh and Castro to invade and conquer America without firing a shot. More recent obviousness can be left as an exercise to the reader, I hope, though you might practice on this amazing bit from one blogger’s recent attack on another blogger:

It [“the important battle before us”] is about slowing down the Radical neo-conservative ultra Imperalists in our current government. And that battle is won by defeating the Republican party.

It is about winning the class war in
America by defeating the Republican party.

It is about defanging the racist, sexist, corrupt Republican party and bringing our soldiers home. PERIOD

“Common sense” is sometimes also called “horse sense,” but that would be the kind of sense that makes horses run back into a burning barn.