The Myth of Common Sense

Why Everything that seems obvious isn't.

"Bad things happen not because of common sense, but rather because the incredible success of common sense in everyday life causes us to put faith in it more than it can bear."

Duncan Watts


What am I for and what I know

 I'm for the selection of the safest spot for DGRs based upon facts including all the risks for long term storage of nuclear waste.  It's too important an issue to be derailed.

Further, I don't care where it goes as long as it is the best site geologically and strategically with risk minimized.  There are no scientific breakthroughs required.

Written for Canadian Community News by Mike Sterling

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The final phase of the Joint Review Panel's (JRP) work on low and intermediate nuclear waste began in Kincardine on the 9th of September.

After the first lengthy sessions there arose a sizeable list of questions that needed detailed answers.  These questions arose from questions directed to the expert witnesses  The JRP asked the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to research and answer them in written form.

If you take the time to look at the non-expert submissions and long letters from many anti-nuclear groups and individuals, you will see that there will be additional and sometimes repetitious questions from the audience as there was in the first sessions. There will be large and small errors in their interpretations of what is said and has been said.

Many of the same voices will be heard as repeats from the earlier sessions.  Do they have much to add?  Probably not, but they have the right to express themselves and that's what they do.  Some make a mini-profession of it.

One hopes that the JRP can get through the important questions that they asked to be answered by legitimate experts in the field.  I think we call all rest easy that the panel will do just that.

In the first sessions, I was puzzled by the use of the words "Common Sense". Those words don't have a foundation that can be relied upon.  Yes, the earth looks flat, but it isn't.

Questions from the audience often began with the words "It's only common sense ....".  That is, they were not asking a question, they were supplying their version of fact based upon their life experience, not engineeringg, not science and certainly not process.  Of course their common sense had nothing to do with low and intermediate waste.

I've learned something about atomic physics.  That is what the JRP is interested in and its safe disposal.  Leave your common sense (whatever that is) at the door and do some research and above all listen carefully. 

It does not mean that you have to go back to school or become a scientist without portfolio.  It means they have to have a meaningful grasp of the subject matter or at least a respect for it. 

What the 'questioners' who have no questions  were saying was that this whole DGR idea defies their version of common sense and their life experience. Their government, according to them, has wasted over 10 years of study for naught.  They attribute the same waste of time to other governments.

They objected to what was in their opinion the product of defective planning and technical minds not quite with the mainstream of common sense like people that they know in business or socialize with at cocktail parties.  They see a horde of nurds endangering the Great Lakes.

I commented with an article called "How Uncommon is Sense?" Read More    Even a person with casual interest in physics will know that common sense often has a perilous existence in science.  In fact common sense is no sense at all in atomic physics for very interesting reasons.

My attempt was to show things that defy common sense, but are true.  We could add things like the double slit experiment in physics, but that requires a lot of background, none of it even hinting at ordinary common sense.

There are myriad other examples.  The idea is that we should not be so sure that random common sense is so reliable when applied to complex problems.  It's good for getting through the day as we all know.

Humans use common sense to make reliable guesses about the world around them and their path through it. It's a valuable trait that we have and we use it all the time.   It's gotten us into Darwin's winners' circle, after all, but it has its limits. That is, some of this common sense stuff is in our genes.  It was put there by natural selection.  This is especially true when we feel threatened from unknown sources.  I guess an immature version of it is at work in the DGR process. Here are a few general examples:

  • There are dark clouds forming.  I better bring my umbrella and avoid open spaces where lightning will find me.  Yes, that makes sense
  • If I don't water my garden, I may lose it.  Yup, common sense again.
  • That dog approaching me, seems aggressive.  I think I'll cross the street.  This is an instinctive reaction, that most humans share as common sense.
  • My mom and dad told me that I will be successful, if I study and work hard.  The age old version of parental common sense.
  • I hit a bad drive and now it's 220 yards over that little lake to the pin.  I think I'll lay up.  Common sense at its finest, but very hard to acquire.
  • I'm getting directions from some satellites via this little hand held device. I think I'll believe it.  I have no idea how GPS works.  I'm not a technologist after all. 

Hmm, well we have to trust special relativity don't we?   Here is a segment of our life that we have to learn what common sense means.  Isn't it something about the Lorentz Transformation from high school physics and time dilation?  No, I don't think we got that far.

After all GPS uses this 1905 concept from Einstein.  Does your common sense tell you why?

Yes, all these examples use common sense in the broad meaning of the the two words. These are all either part of the things we learn at our Mother's knee or they are a product of our experience and education.  Sadly, we can't rely on our own common sense for the DGR issue.  It's more complicated than our daily lives.

This trait of common sense is a real product of what makes us human.  Somehow we've prospered as a species because we learn to avoid failure, not because we are wired for success or deserve it. 

We pass these tips on to the next generation.  Most of our experience is not in atomic physics, however.  Most people know more about the moon than they do about the scientific method.

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But, how wise is it to extend this useful property of being human to complex problems that we know nothing about?  I say no!

Many of the interveners used their version of common sense too often and too loosely.  They did NOT ask good questions. They just made statements out of their grab bag labeled 'common sense'.  Some of the interveners trusted their version of reality so much that they repeated it again and again until the chair had to cut them off.

This bothered me.  Not only was it silly, it was also in a way arrogant to assume that any old version of common sense could be applied to these complex issues.  The questioners did not like the complexity.  To deal with it they applied their common sense.  Their common sense said to them:  It's complicated, therefore it must be wrong.

It was arrogant because they were talking to and objecting to people who really had studied their subject, while they had not done their own research or messed up what information they had come upon. 

 They were pleading with the JRP to agree with them and send this issue packing to some other geographic area or forget it and pass the problem on to future generations.  One of them called the latter 'Rolling Stewardship'  He means inspect it all the time and make adjustments.  Turn it over to the next generation and on and on until some simple solution comes along that is foolproof.

The 'Common Sense' people did not do their homework and did not earn the right to pass on their views to others as infallible.  They could shout them, but not claim to be making any difference at all.  They could have asked meaningful questions about real issues.  Why didn't they?  I think they did not know enough to formulate meaningful questions.

They did not earn my respect, not because they were not familiar with the subject, no not that at all.  I became puzzled by them because they were not willing to do their homework or admit that they knew very little about the subject. Some made trivial, odd errors in their cursory research.

One intervener added information that was not true and attributed it to a prior speaker.  Not only that she tripled the events.  The alert panel caught her mistake and questioned her about her sources, which were bogus and probably not in the material of another speaker that she relied upon.

One intervener did not understand how geologic maps were done and another accused OPG of conflict of interest because he did not understand the spelling difference between two companies.  But, so what, those are to be expected in human interactions.  The interveners did not bring new or useful information forward. To cap it all, the woman with bogus information called upon her own common sense. 

Here is the real problem. There were good questions to be asked, but the Common Sense people did not ask them.  I was hoping and waiting for them to get to the point. No, they assumed all these people, these experts in their fields had somehow overlooked what they believed was the golden version of common sense.

One even objected to the JRP because they knew too much and had too much experience in their fields.  Well, they were chosen because they did know something.

So, I wrote an article about it.  That should be enough for my own curiosity, but I found a researcher named Duncan Watts by accident recently who has really nailed this idea of common sense.  It appears that others are puzzled by those words.

Guess what?  He is a sociologist of all things to be.  By way of being creditable, he is also a PhD in physics.

What is he doing in sociology?  He's there because he respects the scientific method and of all the disciplines, sociology needs it the most.  It is centuries behind.

Please take a look at his lecture at the Santa Fe Institute.  It's on YouTube and over an hour long, but worth the trouble.

The Myth of Common Sense

Why Everything that seems obvious isn't.

By Duncan Watts PhD

Click Here

He urges that bright students should go into the social 'sciences' and apply themselves to see what analysis and mathematics can do. 

We need to answer this question:

Is sociology (and humanity) a chaotic system?  That is, does it respond wildly to small changes in initial conditions?

Is it hopeless to understand and predict the course of events in areas that involve humans with all their malformed ideas about what is common sense?

So with this preamble, I had an enlightenment.  The Common Sensors are the real issue in the DGR controversy. 

OPG, NWMO, CNSC already know that too and that's the reason for all the outreach methods that they are trying to use that the Common Sensors call glossy propaganda..

But the sociologist brings me up short.  He says that we are hundreds of years behind in using methods in social research that have validity. 

Sociologists go into areas and do what we might call "street work", not science.  They can predict very little.  They can correct even less.  They find it hard to predict gang behavior, let along a whole country's social interactions.  They cannot predict economic downturns and how they effect the social network.

Our Common Sense people are annoying because they are using those two words to open the secrets of atomic physics.  How about that?  Is that arrogant or not?

Now, let me say again.  There are real questions to be asked, but the Common Sensors have not asked them nor have they made themselves aware of them.  It's a shame.  If they did ask good questions they would advance their position.  Isn't that strange in itself?



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Tuesday, September 09, 2014