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Johnston: Common sense and expertise

By Adam Johnston - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Mar 15, 2023

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Adam Johnston

I’m good at using common sense. This keeps me from walking into traffic or off cliffs. My gut sensibilities make me think twice when I’m working with things that are too hot, sharp or fattening. As humans, our gut instinct keeps us alive.

But, overall, common sense is terrible.

Common sense operates only on what you have a direct physical or emotional response to. Using it, it’s obvious that the world is flat and stars are just jewels of light surrounding us. Your intuition has no capacity for viruses, GPS or airplanes. It has no depth perception nor objectivity, and it doesn’t analyze data.

Common sense is really dumb. So, I really admire expertise.

I’ve started to get into a series of videos in which seasoned musicians analyze notable performances and recordings of others. They dive deep, considering the mic on a drum, the ear of a bass player or the mix produced by a recording engineer. I understand about half of it but marvel at all of it. They hear things that I don’t because they have experience in studios and understand complicated chord progressions. They untangle their fascination and bring me into the fold — and even though I’m not an expert, I follow along and learn something.

These kinds of dissections aren’t too different from what a good plumber or electrician does when they visit my home. While I can confidently say that I understand circuits and fluid dynamics, for the electrical system and maze of pipes in my old house, I’m happy to pay for experts and the repairs they undertake. They not only envision the networks running within the walls, they have experience and tools for fixing things. Whatever problems I have, they’ve seen before, and I’m grateful.

My most admired experts include doctors, teachers and scientists. In all their arenas of work, they’ve studied patients, students and specimens, and they’ve learned about landscapes of possibilities, interactions and diagnoses. Though I barely know about the workings of my own body, my doctor has seen lots of situations just like mine in countless others. Although I see 8-year-olds as an alien species, seasoned third grade teachers have studied both their learning and attitudes as a career endeavor. And while I look up at the cliffs above a fault line or down at the level of Great Salt Lake with bewilderment, geologists down the hall from me see those features with clarity and can even tell me how one is rising while another is dropping, along with what we should do about it.

Are these experts blessed with some natural ability that’s beyond my own? Not necessarily, though it can seem that way. The biggest difference is that they’ve immersed themselves in their field, its practices and its data. They know not only what they’ve researched, but the context that it fits into, what other co-experts have studied.

Most important, they don’t just learn from what they do right, but from the humble redirections they’ve had to make. That self-correcting process is slow and methodical. The humility of expertise double-checks itself with evidence, whereas the quick response of common sense is deluded in overconfidence.

That’s why I’m dismayed with our reliance and confidence in intuition. It’s why I cringe when I hear a friend, legislator or policymaker stating that some new idea or law is “just common sense.” Often, we talk to a few neighbors or constituents and decide that these “common sense” solutions can be used to treat problems we perceive. When we see new runoff filling Great Salt Lake, a student reading at grade level, our child’s routine health care, we get the impression that it’s all fine for all time and for all people, even when it isn’t.

Common sense lulls us into complacency or, worse, makes us think that intuitive solutions dreamed up by like-minded and well-intended neighbors are not only obvious but right, even as we ignore experts testifying to the contrary. Common sense makes us think that the world is flat. We keep believing it at our own peril.

Adam Johnston is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Weber State University, where he helps prepare future teachers and supports educators throughout Utah.


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