The Privilege of Common Sense


I once had a conversation with a hairdresser in which they told me that I was incredibly intelligent, but that I had no common sense. I responded by asking what made that particular knowledge necessarily common. I got no immediate response.

On my next visit to the barbers, the reply came. Having thought about it, they realised that our experiences were different, and what they had learned from their education, home life and work weren’t the same as what I’d learned. They concluded that assuming that anyone who doesn’t know what you know is an idiot is quite arrogant and unhelpful.

This argument is one which I’ve seen many times subsequently, from the minor, “how can you not to not put those colours together?!” to the more significant, “well, if you don’t know electrons are smaller than atoms you’re not scientifically literate.”

I’ve argued before that such arguments don’t really stand up. I’d go further and argue that such a position is an abuse of privilege: telling other people that they can’t fully function and engage in a society simply because they don’t have access to what is felt to be ‘essential’ knowledge is no better than David Cameron sneering at people from working class backgrounds. It’s all the more ironic when the people being criticised are evidently engaged with a society of which they are fully functioning members.

However, this morning I caught myself asking why an article needed to be written: of course the atmospheric carbon dioxide is acidifying the oceans, we all know about the effect of dissolving carbon dioxide in water, don’t we?

And then I realised that I was doing the same. What those of us who have spent time studying scientific disciplines consider ‘basic’ knowledge is far from the common experience of many – even most – people, just as interior decorating, clothing design and oil extraction are a long way from my comfort zone.

This surely gives us a moral duty to use our privilege and experience for everyone’s benefit. Just as I rely on friends with infinitely more style than I to help me when it comes to selecting fashion, my knowledge can help other people when they need it.

We’re most used to this in regards to formal professions: when we need legal advice we see a lawyer, when we need medical advice we see a doctor. However, I think that this ignores the informal networks that people use to navigate everyday life.

For every professional providing services in a formal context, there is an unprofessional helping in an informal context. Pub medicine, water cooler science education, Facebook philosophy and Wikipedia inform our every day lives as much as, and probably more, than appointments with visibly qualified experts.

For me, this is what arguments about literacy and common sense often miss. As humans, we don’t have to know everything to function in society because we are but one node in networks of knowledge, linked by relationships, encounters and the Internet. The real skill is learning how to navigate the social and digital networks; and how we use the information we have to help others.

After all, I’m rubbish at cutting hair, but I still manage to function in society.

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About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

3 responses to “The Privilege of Common Sense”

  1. ashleyjamespryce says :

    I really liked this. Bravo sir.

  2. Miss Twist says :

    I agree with this.

    One of the hardest things tyou can learn to do is to surround yourself with friends who know more than you do, and admit to yourself that they know more than you do.

  3. jonnyscaramanga says :

    As someone who gets accused of having no common sense at least once a month, I heartily concur.

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