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"Common Sense" and Sensibility

Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential candidate, briefly made headlines last month when it was announced that she’d signed a production deal for a TV "reality" show set in a courtroom. Ms. Palin has never been a judge and doesn’t even possess a law degree, but that’s immaterial, according to Larry Lyttle, the man behind the deal. "She’ll preside over the courtroom of common sense," he told the gossip site TMZ.

If the show materializes, it won’t be the first time a politician has claimed "common sense" as a preeminent virtue. When Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, endorsed the Republican candidate Ted Cruz, he called him "a principled, common-sense conservative." Minus the "principled," that’s also what Cruz’s opponent Donald Trump has beencalling himself. (He has even boasted that he invented the phrase. Tell that to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who described himself as "a common-sense conservative" back in 2014.) The third Republican in the primary race, Ohio Governor John Kasich, introduced a "Common Sense Initiative" to create "a more jobs-friendly regulatory climate" in his state.

Alliteration may make "common-sense conservative" memorable — and may connect present-day Republicans with their hero, Ronald Reagan, who invoked "common sense" three times in his 1988 farewell speech — but Democrats have embraced the common-sense rubric as well: President Obama and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have all called for "common-sense" gun control.

Politics isn’t the only realm in which "common sense" is held in uncommon esteem. The phrase appears in trademarks for smoking tobacco (1899), rat poison (1947), cider (2013), and a digital compass (2015), and other products. It’s in the names of advocacy organizations such as Common Sense Media and radio shows such as "Common Sense with Dan Carlin." And it’s popular in book titles, from Common Sense Pregnancy (2015) and Common Sense Parenting (2006) to Common Sense Business and Common Sense Economics (both 2005); from A Colossal Failure of Common Sense (2009, about the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment firm) to The Death of Common Sense (2011, about "how law is stifling America").

Nor is common sense common only to humans — that is, not if a determined (or quixotic) computer scientist named Doug Lenat has his way. In March, Wired magazine devoted several thousand words to Lenat’s 35-year attempt to build a "common-sense engine" called Cyc built on 15 million logical rules such as "you can’t be in two places at the same time."

What is common, and what makes sense, about all this "common sense"? How did a pair of words that signal unexceptionality — if it’s common, it’s not special — come to signify a desirable goal?

The original common sense was defined by Aristotle as the ability of people and animals, through the functioning of the five senses, to distinguish and identify physical things. That was approximately what common sense meant when it first appeared in English in the 14th century. By the 16th century, it had come to mean "general understanding," and in the 18th century it took on the meaning we have today: "good sound practical sense."

All these mutations are a testament to the flexibility of common, which can mean "shared" (as in Common Core, a shared set of educational standards in the United States), "universal" (as in common law — supposedly derived from ancient custom), and "low-class" or "ordinary" (a common criminal; common cloth). The British Commons is the "lower" house, filled with people with no "rank." Common also appears frequently in mathematics, where it refers to a shared property: common denominator, common ratio, common factor.

It was Thomas Paine who, newly arrived in the American colonies from England, made "common sense" an indispensable part of American political language when he published a pamphlet in 1776 that offered "nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense." He wanted to title the manifesto Plain Truth, but his fellow revolutionary Benjamin Rush suggested he change it to Common Sense. Historian Sophia Rosenfeld — the author of Common Sense: A Political History writes that the new title, "with its hint of anti-elitism as well as nonpartisanship," helped "cement the case — for independence, an end to monarchy and the triumph of a politics that began with the wisdom of the people."

Today, writes Rosenfeld, "common sense" is shorthand for two related messages: "Ordinary people know better, especially compared with overeducated, smooth-talking experts and insiders. And governing works best when it is rooted in everyday experience."

This was a useful construct for the fledgling American democracy. But it’s less useful today, says Rosenfeld:

Once democracy is established and consolidated, common sense is rarely a match for the messy and complicated business of governing. No matter how many times politicians invoke the term today, there can be no such thing as a single, simple, common-sensical solution to the problems confronting the nation.

Moreover, as scientists like to point out, common sense is often wrong: real knowledge can’t be derived from experience alone because each person’s experiences are limited. As Graham Coghill writes in the blog Science Or Not:

[Common sense] tells you that the earth is flat, that heavy things fall faster than light ones, that the sun rotates around the earth, that you should throw water on an oil fire and that stress causes hypertension. Science tells us that all of those conclusions are wrong. Common sense doesn’t predict that you can melt ice by throwing salt onto it, that you can get sunburned on an overcast day or that two brown-eyed parents can have a blue-eyed child. Science can explain all those things.

Duncan Watts, a sociologist and author of The Myth of Common Sense, observes that "common sense isn’t anything like a scientific theory of the world":

Rather it is a hodge-podge of accumulated advice, experiences, aphorisms, norms, received wisdom, inherited beliefs, and introspection that is neither coherent nor even internally self-consistent. Birds of a feather flock together, but opposites also attract. Two minds are better than one, except when too many cooks spoil the broth. Does absence make the heart grow fonder, or is out of sight out of mind? At what point does try, try again turn into flogging a dead horse? And if experience is the best teacher, when should one also maintain a beginner’s mind?

Or as Albert Einstein reportedly said: "Common sense is actually nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of eighteen."

Prejudices and inherited beliefs are less sense than sensibility (to borrow Jane Austen’s contrast): an emotional reaction that’s associated with feeling, or "gut instinct," rather than thinking and logic.

That’s not, of course, what politicians are suggesting when they invoke "common sense." For them, it’s a coded signal, or dog whistle , that says the speaker, no matter how rich or well connected, is one of "the common folk." As Sarah Palin put it, mockingly, in her memoir, Going Rogue:

Shoot, I must have lived such a doggoned sheltered life as a normal, independent American up there in the Last Frontier, schooled with only public education and a lowly state university degree, because obviously I haven’t learned enough to dismiss common sense.

It’s comforting to imagine that common sense based on concrete, everyday experience is all it takes to solve thorny challenges like rising sea levels, internet privacy, wage stagnation, and international terrorism. But those problems aren’t anything like the ones a person faces in ordinary life: staying dry in the rain, getting along with co-workers. After all, notes Duncan Watts with dry humor, we humans have become pretty good at rocket science, but we still can’t measure the effectiveness of an advertisement or predict which movies will be hits. When it comes to claims about common sense, it makes sense to maintain a scientist’s skepticism — and not be swayed by buzzwords.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.