Myth: Scientists lack common sense.

Fact: A scientist's job is studying how the real world works.


The stereotype that scientists lack common sense is undeserved. This alleged shortcoming has not prevented science from exploding in the 20th century, or doubling our life spans. Besides, it is illogical to claim that the more one studies, the dumber or more ignorant one gets. Excellence in science nowadays increasingly calls for a diverse education in a variety of subjects, so scientists actually have a better claim to understanding how the real works than average people. For several hundred years, scientific discoveries were opposed on the grounds that they violated common sense, starting with the flat-earth debate. Conservatives claim that our government should be ruled by common sense, by citizen legislators who come from and quickly return to "the real world." But this is not a custom practiced anywhere else in our society; for example, when people need surgery, they rely on highly-trained surgeons, not home remedies or old wives' tales. Liberals therefore call for our government to be run by those educated in its workings and policies.


Throughout American history, the approach to human wisdom has been divided into two camps: science and common sense. Those that favor science tend to be more educated, and view the ignorance of the masses as a danger to society. Those that favor common sense tend to be less educated, and value practical, everyday experience over the abstract and the theoretical. This latter group believes that scientists are cut off from the real world in their ivory towers, too busy devising fanciful theories to experience how things work in real life. They believe that scientists have been continually proven wrong throughout history, and even today their theories do not jibe with common experience. This stereotype has even found its way into the popular language: the absent-minded professor, the idiot-savant, the nerd who can solve math problems in his head but doesn't know how to tie his own shoelaces. The very appearance of Albert Einstein told us as much: he was a genius at physics, no doubt, but he didn't even know better than to comb his own hair or wear socks.

There is also a political cast to this debate. Liberals have a tradition of preferring science, and conservatives common sense. Thus, much of the ridicule heaped on scientists is really from conservatives trying to discredit liberals. We'll examine more of this aspect of the debate below.

Fortunately, the above stereotype of scientists breaks down upon closer examination. No one can seriously claim that the alleged lack of common sense in science has rendered it even somewhat devoid of value. Thanks to science, humans have walked on the moon, cured countless deadly diseases, doubled our life spans, mapped the human genome, boosted food production, eliminated economic depressions around the world in the last 60 years, and created countless inventions: computers, airplanes, radio communications, laser and CD technology, smart weaponry, engineering feats like bridges and skyscrapers, new chemical compounds -- the list is endless. The world's scientific discoveries and inventions pour out of our universities, not our markets. And even when the market makes successful contributions, it is usually done by giant research and development departments that bear a great resemblance to academia, staffed by Ph.D.'s doing work according to the scientific method. It is science, not common sense, that is responsible for the explosion of prosperity, longevity and human knowledge of the past 100 years. People who therefore attack science are ungrateful in the extreme, for they owe it their very lives.

Ultimately, the dichotomy between science and common sense is a false one. Science is merely common sense taken to a higher level. The only difference between a scientist and a lay person is one of degree. A scientist simply knows more information, and knows how to analyze it better. We should think it strange to believe that learning more information makes a person more ignorant, or that being a better analyst makes one dumber. Yet many advocates of common sense claim that this is essentially what happens when a person attends college! Which, when you stop to think about it, violates all common sense…

The claim that scientists are cut off from "real life" or that they do not know how the "real world" works is equally fallacious. Scientists do not live on Mars. Social scientists measure, research, quantify and analyze human activity -- that is, what actually happens out in the real world. When a sociologist examines suicide statistics, and notices that Catholics suffer a higher suicide rate than Protestants, that is a real world observation, one that an average person could never, ever discern from everyday life. So in fact scientists have a better claim to understanding how the real world works; it is less educated people who have problems with ignorance.

Common sense is actually one of the worst tests for truth you could possibly devise. It defies all common sense to poison a healthy human being with a disease-causing virus, yet this is precisely what happens when we inoculate children. It defies all common sense for sailboats to sail against the wind, yet this is precisely what maritime science allows us to do. The idea that time can warp and space can bend disagrees with our most common sense perceptions of how nature works, yet Einstein proved exactly that. Furthermore, the history of science is replete with examples of scientific discoveries that we take for granted today but were angrily opposed by advocates of common sense when they first appeared. Take the flat-earth debate, for instance. In the 15th-century, the Church held it obvious that the earth was flat -- simply because it looked that way! When considering the existence of "antipodes" -- that is, people living upside down on the other side of the earth -- Lanctantius scoffed:

As anyone familiar with scientific history knows, common sense has always been at the forefront of opposing scientific progress.

So why do scientists get such a bad rap for lacking common sense? There are several reasons, none of them noble. The first is human nature. All people -- without exception -- would like to think that they smarter than their peers. But unless you happen to be the smartest person in the world, there will always be someone else to frustrate your claim to the title. And the more people who frustrate this claim, the more frustrated you will become. Another potential source of discomfort is one's level of education. People with college degrees have an entirely reasonable claim to know more about how the world works. They even have an entirely reasonable claim to being smarter (that is, possessing better analytical skills, not just information), because colleges have entrance requirements based on IQ and achievement test scores. Unfortunately, many people protect themselves from the truth about their own undeveloped education and intelligence by devising various rationalizations. These include: "Scientists lack common sense," or "Scientists have always been wrong," or "Scientists don't understand how the real world works."

Unfortunately, these rationalizations are given a boost by the natural misunderstandings that occur between scientists and the public. Most people's knowledge extends to their immediate surroundings: their job, family, neighborhood, etc. And their belief system is subjective; that is, either driven by self-interest, or driven by considerations immediately surrounding them. By contrast, the scientist's knowledge extends to universal observations and generalities. When examining large groups of people, it is often impossible to devise theories or policies that satisfy everyone's self-interests. Often these interests are opposed to each other, so the scientist must make a more objective analysis of the situation. For example, the knowledge and interest of a business owner may extend no farther than his factory. The knowledge and interest of an economist, however, extends to the entire economy, from the factory level to the national level. And the economist may point out that the factory is causing pollution, and call for a national policy to deal with this life-threatening problem. Of course, the polluting factory owner is offended by this assault on his self-interest, and bitterly complains that economists have no idea how difficult it is to run a business, or how the real world works, or… well, you get the idea.

This rationalization is given another boost by the scientist's specialization of knowledge. Critics of science claim that most scientists become so involved in their very narrow specializations that they lose touch with the general world. A high school graduate who regularly reads newspapers and magazines knows more about what is going on in the real world than a biologist who is buried in his butterfly collection. Thus, when the biologist is asked for his views on the world, he might say something like, "We need to stop all human activity on earth to save the butterflies."

It is true that the "ivory tower" effect exists to some degree (although not quite as much as the above parody suggests). But being cut off from the real world is actually a much greater problem for the uneducated. Studies have shown that people who watch too much TV seriously overestimate the levels of violence and sex in the real world, thanks to the heightened levels they witness on TV. (2) With the average family watching more than seven hours of TV a day, this is a considerable amount of time being separated from reality. (3) At least scientists have a claim to studying the real world, not a fictionalized, Hollywood version of it.

Furthermore, it is simply untrue that scholars isolated in their ivory towers know less general knowledge than average people. Consider a theologian who is obsessed with Christian history, to the detriment of all other reading. Will this scholar get lost in the details of his field as other people keep up with current events and world news? Hardly. If the historian is to make any progress in his field at all, he must first study several fields related to it: sociology, psychology, theology, political science, philosophy, Western history, scientific history, the scientific method, archeology, geology, evolution and creationism -- the list is endless. In other words, the scientist needs a well-rounded education in "how the world works" before he can make any progress at all in his own narrow specialization. That is why the first two years of college are devoted to general knowledge -- and these two years alone will teach a college student more than most non-college educated people will learn in their entire lifetimes. Even at the doctoral level, universities are increasingly promoting diversity of knowledge along with narrow specialization, because the former turns out to help the latter.

The political aspects of the debate

As mentioned above, liberals have historically advocated science, and conservatives common sense. In the 18th century, the political philosophy that dominated U.S. government was "conservative" by today's definition: politicians generally believed in smaller, less obtrusive government, rugged individualism and self-reliance. And their bias towards common sense was apparent from the start.

Thomas Paine's famous tract calling for independence was entitled Common Sense. Early American philosophers created a practical school of thought called American Pragmatism, in sharp contrast to the highly theoretical European philosophies of Kant and Goethe. In his classic 19th century analysis, Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville wrote: "It must be acknowledged that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States; and in few have great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers, been more rare." (4) De Tocqueville correctly pointed out that this had less to do with democracy or any other political ideology than the fact that America was a developing country. For pioneer families struggling on the frontier, and even to established communities trying to build and enrich their young society, the immediate goal was survival. They had neither the leisure nor the incentive to consider high theory and literature, unlike their already established European counterparts. And it is interesting to note that once America was extensively settled, it became a highly fertile land of invention, giving the world the telephone, the phonograph, the radio, the light bulb, the car and the airplane.

Nonetheless, even in American politics, liberals and conservatives have always been divided on this issue. It is probably no accident that the United States' first internationally-famous literary giant was the irreverent liberal Mark Twain. America's greatest scientists and inventors would also tend to be largely liberal. Franklin Roosevelt would establish his famous "brain trust" at the White House; three-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson would be mocked -- both affectionately and not -- as an "egg head;" Kennedy and Johnson would recruit their so-called "best and brightest" and "the wise men" to advise them on all issues. Clinton, by all accounts, keeps a running university class at the White House, inviting top professors from all across the nation to give brief lectures in the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, conservatives have cultivated a disdain for these stuffy, pontificating intellectuals. One of their most common complaints is that theoreticians often give advice of no practical value in the real world. Conservatives have repeatedly called for a citizen legislature, filled not with experts holding degrees in law or political science, but with everyday businessmen who would come from, and quickly return to, the world they were governing. And, not surprisingly, conservatives have been eager to defund education. As Ronald Reagan once said, "Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?" Conservative presidential advisors only rarely come from the ranks of academia; most often they come from business. The "brain trust" finds no equivalent in Republican administrations. One of the surprising finds of the Watergate tapes was that Richard Nixon, widely regarded as one of our smarter presidents, carried on virtually no intellectual conversations in the Oval Office. Everything he discussed was a practical matter.

There are a few exceptions, of course. Henry Kissinger and David Stockman are widely admired for their intellectual gifts, although these exceptions are so notable because they are so rare. And in Stockman's case, even Stockman himself admitted that his stream of statistics which impressed so many people at the time were phony; no one, he now admits, really knew what was going on with those numbers. Another exception is the current Republican leadership in Congress. Newt Gingrich, Dick Army and Phil Gramm represent a new breed of conservative politician: those who previously worked as college professors. It is interesting to note two points here: first, even they describe themselves as "radical" conservatives. Second, they were all fired from their universities for incompetence or engaging in polemics --dismissals which they claim were politically motivated. Nonetheless, they represent something new to conservative politics.

The objection to ruling by "common sense" instead of "science" is obvious. In no other field of human endeavor do we reject the counsel of scientists in favor of that of amateurs. When you need major surgery, you seek the expertise of a highly-trained medical doctor, not the home remedies of old wives' tales. When you need someone to write computer software, you seek the help of a computer scientist, not someone who merely knows how to navigate the Internet. When you need a skyscraper built, you seek the help of engineers, not tenants who know how to operate the elevator. When you need your television repaired, you call a repairman, not someone who knows how to watch TV. The point is that the common sense required to operate a system is hardly the science required to design or fix it. Without question, scientists and engineers should take the needs of consumers and operators into account, but this information is hardly all that is necessary; it needs to be integrated into a much larger body of knowledge about the subject.

This may seem obvious, yet, for some reason, many Americans ignore this principle when it comes to governing the country. Our executive and legislative branches should be filled with economists, sociologists, and political scientists, not amateur citizens. If everyday Americans are worried that political scientists would lose touch with average citizens, much as engineers might forget the tenants who must live in their buildings, then the vote will recapture their attention. In fact, the vote is very powerful in this regard.

(Some might point out that there is already a high percentage of lawyers in Congress, which seems natural for a legislature. But the purpose of a lawyer is to interpret and legislate laws, not understand the diverse sciences that compel them. A lawyer is no more trained to write an enlightened economic law any more than an English teacher is trained to write as brilliantly as Shakespeare. Ideally, scientists should formulate policy, and lawyers should run the nuts and bolts of the legislature.)

Many of the problems that our government suffers from today stem from the fact that our legislators are not qualified for their jobs. The problems facing our society are complex and demand enlightened solutions. If we insist on a government of amateurs, then we should not be surprised if the result is amateur government.

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1. Lanctantius, Inst. Div., lib. III, cap. 3.

2. This remarkable study was conducted by Larry Gross and George Gerbner at the Annenberg School of Communications. They divided a group of television viewers into "heavy viewers" and "light viewers" and gave them a multiple-choice quiz about the real world. For example, the viewers were asked to guess their own chances of encountering violence in any given week. The possible answers were 50-50, 10-1 and 100-1. According to the statistics, the real answer is 100-1, but heavy television viewers consistently answered 50-50 and 10-1. They also drastically overestimated the U.S. as a proportion of the world's population, and the percentage of people employed as professionals, athletes and entertainers, just as television overemphasizes these groups. Interestingly enough, education did not influence these test results; educated people were as likely to make these errors as less educated people. Larry Gross, "The 'Real' World of Television," Today's Education, January-February, 1974.

3. Nielson Television Index, Report on Television Usage (A.C. Nielson Co., Hackensack, N.J., January, 1984).

4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Richard Heffner (New York: Mentor, 1984) p. 158.