It seems that every week we hear of new evidence overturning current government advice on the nation’s health. Heart patients should eat oily fish, then they needn’t bother. Pregnant mothers should shun alcohol, then a daily tipple will do no harm. Once-cherished notions are suddenly re-examined and found to be wanting. Is this because science has progressed? Or simply that past judgments actually came from bad science?
Psychological science, neuroscience and the health sciences have all been battered by the press recently. Academics and investigators have unearthed fraudulent practice, flawed methods, dodgy data, biased scientists, journal editorial policies that are partial, all fuelled by the publish-publish-publish-to-get-on policy in universities. Science now has to be done at a speed that is incompatible with real progress. It has to be applied to key policies and practices. And the cracks are beginning to show. People don’t know what to believe and what they can trust.
Even evidence is equivocal. No organisation, government or health provider would dare advance a policy decision without having an ‘evidence-base’. But if we cannot always trust the evidence (which in truth it seems we cannot) what is the way forward?
Human nature decrees that decision makers tend to default to doing what they did before. That they prefer to stick doggedly to their old mantras. The appeal of past ‘evidence’ is too alluring. Even when the evidence is found to be flawed there is a blind spot in reasoning, a false but reassuring assumption that some evidence is better than no evidence.
And so decision-makers continue to be victims of their own psychology. After all, psychology has shown that most decisions - and a great deal of behaviour - are based on faulty logic. And the public foots the bill. Science has an important and critical role in helping solve practical problems but it is not infallible. For most real world issues controlling all the relevant variables and interactions between them is nigh on impossible. Hence the need to apply science carefully, with a considered approach, and not with a rule-bound rigidity. Science can only do some things.
Is there an answer to this conundrum? I think it is to exercise common sense. I am not saying that psychology is common sense (or should be). Every day empirical research throws up answers that are wildly counter-intuitive. I am saying that practical matters (including science) will always need to be considered though the filter of common sense, otherwise the application of science will be compromised.
But what is common sense? To me it is not another kind of knowledge, nor is it a simple cognitive process or ability. My common sense tells me that it is as complex as the factors inherent in any kind of situation to which it might be applied.
Common sense is a practical view and approach to ourselves, to other people, and to all aspects of living. It is how we deal with issues and problems, how we manage our own thoughts, our beliefs, our attitudes and how we cope with other people. It is essentially practical and wordly, not intellectual or academic. Common sense requires that we are flexible and ready to jettison habits and old ways of thinking when they do not serve us practically. This is one reason the techniques of Do Something Different are relevant to improving common sense.
Psychology has very little to say about common sense. Despite this, the term is used quite liberally in some parts of the discipline. Robert J. Sternberg – a great psychologist who bravely tackled many practical topics - saw common sense as practical intelligence. In his much quoted 1995 paper Testing Common Sense he discussed practical intelligence and tacit knowledge in terms of common sense. Although neither measure related to traditional intelligence scores both were much stronger predictors of job performance and life success. For Sternberg common sense was real-world ‘problem solving ability’.
But common sense is much more than problem solving. It also involves taking a sensible perspective, having functional attitudes and beliefs, being able to tackle a range of problems, getting on with people when it matters, grasping anothers’ perspective, knowing and using emotions appropriately, not losing sight of the goal, being flexible and adaptable with a sufficient range of behaviours to match the job.
To reduce common sense down to domain-specific expertise or knowledge is to miss the point. It extends far beyond that, recruiting both meta-knowledge and a discerningability to know which rules and judgements apply in vastly differing circumstances.
So why the paucity of research on common sense?
Why the lack of Government programmes developing common sense in our populations?
Why no common sense on the school curriculum?
Why no company training budgets to improve employees’ common sense?
A 1% boost in common sense of staff could, in my guess, return at least 25% on profits. More common sense would reduce global conflict, improve relationships and develop greater tolerance of the differences between each of us. Instead we become victims of subtle forces that promote sameness and groupthink.
Psychology could contribute much to our understanding of common sense. But to do so it may have to better understand the limitations of scientific methods. To abandon its attachment to 'control' and simplification. Complex problems can be broken down into scientifically manageable experiments and controlled variables, but useful practical answers demand a level of complexity that stretches way beyond the reaches of the ‘ordinary’ scientific.
Science works because it simplifies the world. Common sense requires that sometimes we will need to complicate things to get sensible, practical, workable answers.
The world would be a better place if only common sense was more common. I am also sure that psychology would be a more useful discipline if psychological scientists could take a more common sense view of their own science. Blinkers are not always good laboratory attire.