The Trouble With Common Sense

From The New York Times:

Christakis-popup The popularity of the Mona Lisa is an illusion. As Duncan J. Watts explains: “We claim to be saying that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because it has attributes X, Y and Z. But really what we’re saying is that the Mona Lisa is famous because it’s more like the Mona Lisa than anything else.” In other words, we are trapped inside a hall of mirrors of our own devising. We think the Mona Lisa is famous because of its traits, but we think those traits are significant only because they belong to the Mona Lisa, which we know to be famous. Ditto Shakespeare? Yes. When an incredulous English professor asked him whether he believed “Shakespeare might just be a fluke of history,” Watts indicated that he meant exactly that.

Watts doesn’t tell us how that conversation ended, but common sense does. Either the literature professor sputtered that Watts — a sociologist, physicist and former officer of the Australian Navy — had no idea what he was talking about, and left him standing with a half-­empty drink in his hand, or she was quite taken with his unorthodox views and spent the rest of the evening engrossed. That both outcomes — although incompatible — strike us as predictable is actually Watts’s point in this penetrating and engaging book. We rely on common sense to understand the world, but in fact it is an endless source of just-so stories that can be tailored to any purpose. “We can skip from day to day and observation to observation, perpetually replacing the chaos of reality with the soothing fiction of our explanations,” Watts writes. Common sense is a kind of bespoke make-believe, and we can no more use it to scientifically explain the workings of the social world than we can use a hammer to understand mollusks.

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