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20 May, 2009

Could have told you that

The 'waking edge' of first half-consciousness provided the following this morning.  In that instant, it made perfect sense, but I'll let you decide whether it really stands.

Common sense is the ability to react to and process the ordinary.
'Uncommon sense' (okay, the terminology needs work) is the ability to question: to ask 'what if?' or 'does that really follow?' rather than automatically implement the obvious reaction to a situation.

By definition, common sense is, commonly, sensible: the standard, well-rehearsed response will tend to be the most suitable. However, the question still needs to be considered: the self-evident probably is right, but until alternatives are tested (empirically or logically), one doesn't know it's right.

An outcome is the sort of academic research ridiculed by tabloids, producing results the mythical 'down-to-earth common man' could have guessed in a moment. But the intuitive isn't always true: the expected outcome mightn't have been accurate, and rules-of-thumb need to be quantified.

Coincidentally, there's a good example in today's Guardian. Researchers have established that ducks like water, and have been mocked, even accused of wasting £30,000 of public money. Obviously ducks like water – ask a farmer for free, rather than conducting an expensive formal study.
Yet that cursory 'common sense' assumption might suggest that ducks would maximise time spent swimming in a pond, rather than the actual, less-intuitive, result of the research: that they seem to prefer immersion in showers.
And yes, this does have a very practical significance:

Marian Stamp Dawkins, professor of animal behaviour at Oxford, said it was unfair to portray the study as finding out simply that ducks liked water. It had been carried out to find the best way of providing water to farmed ducks because ponds quickly became dirty, unhygienic and took up a lot of water, making them environmentally questionable.

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