Uncommon Common Sense

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This is one of a series of posts based on the book Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer by Duncan Watts. Watts is a sociologist who is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a Professor at Large at Cornell University. He was a professor of Sociology at Columbia University from 2000-2007, and then a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directed the Human Social Dynamics group. He starts his book with quotes from people who don’t believe that social sciences are real science; couldn’t we just have figured that out by using common sense?

It turns out – probably not. “Common sense is how we know what to wear when we go to work in the morning, how to behave on the street or the subway, and how to maintain harmonious relationships with our friends and coworkers,” he writes. “It tells us when to obey the rules, when to quietly ignore them, and when to stand up and challenge the rules themselves.” But common sense comes from observing, learning, and adopting hundreds, even thousands, of unspoken rules and social cues.

That’s one reason robots will never be able to completely impersonate a human. There are simply too many variables on acceptable behavior that are never written down – you just have to know them. Watts writes: “…in order to teach a robot to imitate even a limited range of human behavior, you would have to, in a sense, teach it everything about the world.”

Watts cites the example of riding on a subway. When the subway is crowded, we don’t mind at all that we’re packed in closely next to other riders. But if the car is almost empty, someone standing right next to you would be creepy and uncomfortable. We all understand that we’re expected to spread out according to the space available, but we can’t precisely articulate why. He writes, “People who lack common sense are a bit like the hapless robot in that they never seem to understand what it is that they should be paying attention to, and they never seem to understand what it is that they don’t understand. And for exactly the same reason that programming robots is hard, it’s surprisingly hard to explain to someone lacking in common sense what it is that they’re doing wrong.”

It’s one of the reasons that people on the autism spectrum struggle to find work and fit in at their workplace. They don’t always pick up the social cues that teach us how to act and respond to others. What is “common sense” for us may not be the same for them. In fact, Watts writes, “common sense is “common” only to the extent that two people share sufficiently similar social and cultural experiences. Common sense, in other words, depends on what the sociologist Harry Collins calls collective tacit knowledge, meaning that it is encoded in the social norms, customs, and practices of the world.” Common sense will differ between two cultures, two families, or even two people.

That’s one of the premises of Watts’ book: that we can’t rely simply on our common sense to understand social issues or solve problems. “That what is self-evident to one person can be seen as silly by another should give us pause about the reliability of common sense as a basis for understanding the world. How can we be confident that what we believe is right when someone else feels equally strongly that it’s wrong— especially when we can’t articulate why we think we’re right in the first place?”

Because we all think that common sense could solve most of society’s problems, we tend to disparage those who think differently. We see things differently, based on our own experience and filters, and it’s almost impossible to understand people who don’t agree. The problem is, according to Watts, that policy makers and “experts” also have these built-in biases, but they don’t recognize them – they think they think more clearly than the Common Man, who’s relying on Common Sense.

Future posts will explore more of why everything is obvious, once you know the answer.

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