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What makes common sense?
As a university teacher, I try to teach my students one thing above all else: common sense. By this I mean the willingness and ability to adhere to simple reasoning principles when thinking, e.g. the principle of not only considering the pro-arguments for a position, but also the contra-arguments. Each of my students accepts these principles of reason – mostly immediately and without contradiction. Everybody! For they are so plausible that our own reason forces us to accept them.
Students often ask me why I spend so much time explaining things that every child should understand. The reason for this is simple: common sense is child’s play – until it is no longer. When we think about questions to which we have no emotional connection, we are sober, serene, reasonable. Our common sense works. However, this has an end as soon as it comes to things that are close to our hearts. Every means is right for us here to support the position that is most sympathetic to us. We then search for evidence for our point of view and ignore everything that speaks against it. Psychologists speak of “confirmation bias” or “disconfirmation bias” in this context. A research team around the American psychologist Dan Kahan has even found out that trial participants literally let five be straight when it comes to their own political views. They accepted arguments for their position even when they obviously violated basic rules of calculation (Kahan et al. 2013).
Homeopathy is a good example of a bad example
Common sense cannot be overridden only by our political orientations. In my courses I often use the topic “homeopathy” to demonstrate how easily intelligent people get stuck in outrageous theses. I choose this topic for two reasons:
- Everything indicates that homeopathy is completely untrue. Their scientific initial plausibility goes towards zero.
- Methodologically flawless empirical studies generate roughly the data one would expect when comparing one placebo with another.
Common sense therefore requires us to reject homeopathy, but many people, some of them quite intelligent, still believe in homeopathy.
The constellation of 1. and 2. ensures that discussions about the pros and cons of homeopathy are regularly transformed into a logical horror cabinet. Intelligent homeopathy advocates put forward arguments that are obviously far-fetched. They conclude in a way that they themselves would reject in other contexts because they are so blatantly contrary to common sense. To illustrate this, I would just like to add an example from the journalist Jens Jessen – after all, head of the feature section emeritus of the renowned weekly DIE ZEIT. He writes: “From the fact that something cannot be explained or proven with present methods, it does not follow at all that it does not exist. Right, gentlemen of the medical profession? Even strict epistemology does not permit such a conclusion. The same scepticism that speaks against homeopathy can also be used in its favour.”
This argument is a sin against common sense – not a small one. To see this, one only has to replace the word “homeopathy” with the word “yeti”, as the philosopher Norbert Hörster once suggested in another context. The result is: “The same scepticism that speaks against the Yeti can also be used in his favor.”
Anyone who allows such an argument for homeopathy to go through should therefore also believe in all other things for which we have no evidence, e.g. in the yeti. I suspect, however, that Jens Jessen does not believe in the Yeti. Because his common sense would certainly turn back on this subject.
Emotion versus Mind
This is exactly the point: homeopathy has managed to bind many intelligent people emotionally to itself. And they’re sometimes willing to say pretty crazy things to defend them. I want someone to say again that homeopathy is incapable of anything. Even though its medicines have no pharmacological effects, homeopathy is extremely effective in another way: it manages to override common sense. You too?
Author: Nikil Mukerji studied philosophy and economics. Today he is Managing Director of the Executive Program Philosophy Politics Economics (PPW) at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. He also works as a freelance business and political consultant for the Institut für Argumentation in Munich.
In his new book he explains – vividly and true-to-life – the central rules of rational thinking: “Die 10 Gebote des gesunden Menschenverstandes” (The 10 Commandments of Common Sense, Springer, 2016)
Read also on our website: “Why people like to believe in homeopathy“.
Photo: Shutterstock 81762259 Anna Omelchenko