Politicians love to appeal to common sense – but does it trump expertise?

Essay by Magda Osman: “Politicians love to talk about the benefits of “common sense” – often by pitting it against the words of “experts and elites”. But what is common sense? Why do politicians love it so much? And is there any evidence that it ever trumps expertise? Psychology provides a clue.

We often view common sense as an authority of collective knowledge that is universal and constant, unlike expertise. By appealing to the common sense of your listeners, you therefore end up on their side, and squarely against the side of the “experts”. But this argument, like an old sock, is full of holes.

Experts have gained knowledge and experience in a given speciality. In which case politicians are experts as well. This means a false dichotomy is created between the “them” (let’s say scientific experts) and “us” (non-expert mouthpieces of the people).

Common sense is broadly defined in research as a shared set of beliefs and approaches to thinking about the world. For example, common sense is often used to justify that what we believe is right or wrong, without coming up with evidence.

But common sense isn’t independent of scientific and technological discoveries. Common sense versus scientific beliefs is therefore also a false dichotomy. Our “common” beliefs are informed by, and inform, scientific and technology discoveries…

The idea that common sense is universal and self-evident because it reflects the collective wisdom of experience – and so can be contrasted with scientific discoveries that are constantly changing and updated – is also false. And the same goes for the argument that non-experts tend to view the world the same way through shared beliefs, while scientists never seem to agree on anything.

Just as scientific discoveries change, common sense beliefs change over time and across cultures. They can also be contradictory: we are told “quit while you are ahead” but also “winners never quit”, and “better safe than sorry” but “nothing ventured nothing gained”…(More)”