It used to be common sense that black people were inferior to white people. It used to be common sense that man couldn’t build heavier-than-air machines that would fly. It used to be common sense that fireproof asbestos was a wonderful substance to build with. And it used to be common sense that a rocket couldn’t possibly operate in the vacuum of space.
We all recognize each of those as fallacies today, but they were the accepted conventional wisdom of their days. When are people going to learn that what they see as “common sense” is frequently just a sum total of the biases they’ve picked up along the way?
It’s frustrating to me that so many people have no patience for intellectual complexity and nuance. They’re so impatient (and fundamentally anti-intellectual, in some cases) that they can’t take the time and effort to understand something other than the conventional wisdom that they know — even if they complain about the status quo. They can’t see outside of a very small box.
I was involved in an online discussion last night about balancing the rights of parents to exercise their religion with the need to protect children from unreasonable harm. It’s a complex subject, whether you’re a statist or not. (It’s actually even more complex if you oppose the state, but that’s a topic for another time.) For several people, it wasn’t a complex subject, though. There wasn’t even anything to discuss, because it was obvious that the state should seize children when parents don’t follow conventional medical wisdom. Here was part of a comment:
“These lengthy ‘intellectual’ debates are a waste of time. Whatever happened to good ’ole common sense?”
Of course, when people appeal to “common sense,” what they generally mean is that people should agree with them, because the correct answer is obvious — just as it used to be obvious that blacks were inferior and that machines couldn’t fly and that asbestos was wonderful and that rockets wouldn’t function in space.
On Jan. 13, 1920, the New York Times lectured an early pioneer of rocketry about the error of his ways. Dr. Robert Goddard was busy figuring out how to make rockets work better and how they might function in space. Here’s what the Times said about him:
“That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
It’s certainly true that some people are unable to function in the normal, everyday world because their minds are so tied up in an abstract and philosophical world. But it’s just as true that even more people are such slaves to what they already believe they know that they can’t see that much of what they believe is nonsense.
By the way, the Times eventually published a correction to the 1920 editorial — three days before the men of Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969.