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 --
"Is there any one so senseless as to believe that there are
men whose footsteps are higher than their heads?... that the crops
and trees grow downward?... that the rains and snow and hail fall
upward toward the earth?" (1)
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
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
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
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.
Return to Overview
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.