Is common sense useful or detrimental to the scientific process?

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Offline Evie

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I have always felt that common sense was a useful attribute to have, but is it really? In everyday use, I would say, yes, common sense can keep you out of trouble (donít step in that puddle with the live electrical wire dangling into it!), but in scientific application I believe it can be a serious hindrance. Common sense told our forbearers that the earth was the center of the universe, life could spontaneously generate, creatures did not evolve, and the crust of the earth was an immobile solid mass. It is only through careful, detailed examination of the world around us and sense that is somewhat beyond the common variety that allows us to discover the scientific truth of matters. Often, reality contradicts what our senses may have told us through everyday observation, and what seems like common sense is really only a lack of understanding.

There is an individual on this forum of late who seeks some common sense from his fellow scientists. While I firmly believe that science should always be questioned, always be reexamined through the lenses of our further understanding and with an open mind, new theories must be based upon careful deduction with use of the scientific method. In my opinion, the individual I am referring to simply enjoys the sight of his own typed words on the screen and has very little interest in scientific discussion. I see little hope that anything could sway his opinions, no matter how cogently presented nor abundantly supported through scientific study. It is my advice (which may be taken or not) not to inflate his ego by responding (especially with quotes, which must delight him to no end) to what is likely written merely to inflame and engender heated response. A true scientist keeps away from absolute assertions, since nothing in science is ever absolute.

It is not my intention to start a "flame war" or anything of that sort. I simply dislike seeing so many topics devolving into arguments, and so much erroneous information making it's way onto the internet (there's enough of that as it is).
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
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I agree, you have made some very relevant points here as I too am disappointed how a perfectly sensible scientific thread can quickly degenerate into a chatterfest around someone or other's personality.

So far as common sense is concerned it certainly hasn't stood philosophy in very good stead and a lot has been written about how our senses can repeatedly let us down. As you say, some things are counterintuitive (heliocentricity for example) and there is a very good chapter in Alan Chalmers' book What is this thing called Science? O U Press, that explores the pitfalls of common sense (pp 1-18). That said, we'd be ill-advised to overlook/discard it; it should be used with care.

It might be interesting to hear what others say about this.
« Last Edit: 10/09/2008 16:37:20 by blakestyger »


Offline graham.d

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Good posts. I suppose "Common Sense" can be interpreted in a number of ways and I guess that there becomes a different level of common sense which may be shared by, say, particle physicists that would be quite alien to, say, an accountant; and, of course, vice versa.

People specialising in a particular field tend to accept a status quo and this does sometimes need challenging. This should be free for anyone to make such a challenge but it does need to be based on sensible grounds and therefore, usually, will have to come with someone with a high level of understanding of the subject to start with.

I'm afraid that the common sense of the everyman has been shown to be not very useful when it comes to understanding quantum theory or relativity where our brains have not evolved to need such an understanding. Often the only way to "see" how something will behave is by studying sets of equations.


Offline Don_1

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Agreed. Common sense is of vital importance in everyday life, but when researching something new or looking to update/improve accepted theories it should be set aside. An open mind is better by far in such circumstances. Common sense told us we cannot fly, or breath underwater. Researchers, inventors, adventurers etc. actually NEED to disregard common sense in order to break through it's boundaries.
If brains were made of dynamite, I wouldn't have enough to blow my nose.