Common sense and a review of “Can it Happen Here?” by Cass Sunstein and Others

A collection of essays on “how democracies crumble, how propaganda works, and the role of the media, courts, elections, and ‘fake news’ in the modern political landscape,” with the full list of contained essays available here. The title is a reference to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, “It can’t happen here.”

Yes, the Trump administration’s various moves (denigrating the press, attacking expertise, and the Muslim Ban) play a role in the essays, but the articles go far beyond just ruminating on the US today. They also discuss historical actions (Japanese internment and the Korematsu decision especially), lessons from democratic backsliding in other countries, and what the question itself means.

There are several interesting essays — too many to discuss here — so I’ll limit the review to my favorite essay, “The Commonsense Presidency, “ by Duncan Watts. The essay explores the meaning of “common-sense” and its weaponization, arguing that perhaps we should set it aside for carefully reasoned beliefs.

The essay discusses several aspects of and adjacent to common sense.

  1. Common sense is not “common,” in the sense that different groups and cultures disagree. Think of — just in the last few decades in the United States — how “common sense” on a whole host of cultural issues has at least been challenged if not turned around.
  2. Common sense is often used as a cudgel against debate. Once someone invokes common sense, they’re saying that they don’t have to provide any more justification — disagreement means stupidity or bad faith.
  3. Common sense, even when it is truly common, is often wrong. Of course many scientific examples come to mind, such as historical beliefs regarding the Earth’s centrality in our universe.
  4. Science is belief. People have no trouble believing the findings of astronomers (or chemists, or other hard sciences), but we tend to not believe those of social scientists, even when their methods are airtight. Why? because we have (a very limited) personal experience and common sense that provides potentially different answers. Our personal experience and common sense should not trump carefully obtained social science findings.
  5. Scientists just spouting opinions is no better than common sense. Believe scientists when they speak from expertise and experience in that specific area — it’s about the process, not the person carrying it out.

I especially appreciated the discussion of the last two points, as it relates to a pet peeve of mine — when people play word games and criticize others who use “believe” in reference to science, arguing that it should be distinguished from other (e.g. religious) forms of belief. My view is that the scientific process is a more rigorous (and better and …) method of generating and vetting facts than other processes. However, for each individual result or consensus, the vast majority of people must simply believe the result without direct access to the evidence, trusting that the process worked in the given case.

More concretely: I’m going to get a PhD in the next couple of years, and I am not capable of understanding 99+% of scientific papers out there; in my field itself, I have fully verified the mathematical proofs of only a small fraction of papers that I have read. When I say I think global warming is happening, what I’m really saying is: “there are many people who have presented evidence that it is happening, and I believe in peer review and the scientific process (enough for this purpose; the process has its problems) to vet this evidence that I’m not capable or willing to vet myself.” The same thought process applies for statements astronomers make about the existence of planets with certain properties, or the medical field makes about the efficacy of certain drugs.