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Common Sense
August 30, 2009 8:36 PM   Subscribe

C0nc0rdance [sytl] asks; How far should we trust common sense? A less than 9 min video on Common Sense as it relates to Science. Enjoy.
posted by nola (30 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Who can conceive of the size of the sun?" Er, I can.
posted by unSane at 8:40 PM on August 30, 2009


You can? Color me impressed, I'm still bewildered by the size of the earth.
posted by nola at 8:42 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nola -- I am, too! (small world!)
posted by jfrancis at 8:54 PM on August 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


It seems like the more you know about science, the more refined your common sense will become.
posted by delmoi at 8:54 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


From a set theoretic (i.e. the definition of integers) standpoint, conceiving a >1 number as a collection of smaller groups seems like the *only* way. I think I have an intuitive sense of what he means when he talks about visualizing seven things "directly, without grouping the objects into subgroups", but when I attempt to do so, it seems meaningless. What's seven apples? Seven instances of one apple — what other definition is there?
posted by BaxterG4 at 8:57 PM on August 30, 2009


Maybe it's the geniuses who have uncommon sense?
posted by maxpower at 9:00 PM on August 30, 2009


Yeah whatever ya nose-breathers. I don't know about all that fancy math b.s. featured in your little film but I'll tell ya one thing - see how far it gets you when the power goes out and you run out of lithium-juice to get you to the whole-food store.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:01 PM on August 30, 2009


God this video is terrible. It's got one star rating and is just, from what I saw, rehashing some common factoids set to a sideshow.

He talks about something Dawkins mentioned, which I heard in a video of a lecture he did that was posted on meta filter. He talked about the Monty Hall Problem, which I heard about long ago. And he talks sooo slooowly.
posted by delmoi at 9:11 PM on August 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


BaxterG4: I think what he means is that when you 'visualize' seven of something you don't visualize, say, apples arranged in a Heptagon but rather a group of four + three, or five + two, or whatever. Anyway, he's an idiot.
posted by delmoi at 9:15 PM on August 30, 2009


This is similar to the QualiaSoup video, Open-mindedness [prv] They do seem to recommend each other.
posted by dhartung at 9:19 PM on August 30, 2009


"Seven instances of one apple — what other definition is there?"

You would be surprised.
posted by ifandonlyif at 9:27 PM on August 30, 2009


He talks about something Dawkins mentioned, which...

Ah, you've ruined it now. Close up the thread, mods...
posted by pompomtom at 9:29 PM on August 30, 2009


i don't care what the rationalists say - sacrificing a goat to make the rain come would never be as boring as this
posted by pyramid termite at 10:13 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Single Yink Too Lube?
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:14 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


It is a fact that one must beware of common sense when working in the sciences. There is just no way around that.

But the right way to get people to realize that is to talk about the weirdnesses of those scales and blow their minds that way. As it is, it's like "I just tricked you with a brain teaser. THE WORLD IS A LIE!"
posted by JHarris at 1:20 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Single Yink Too Lube?

Or perhaps... Single You Tube Link
posted by delmoi at 3:16 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sheesh. Anybody who can't directly visualize 7 items, hasn't spent enough time watching baseball, to know an infield when he sees one (First, second, shortstop, third, catcher, pitcher, ump). 8? Batter up! 9? Base hit, next batter! Etc... Sheesh.

And as for the value of common sense to science at large, there is a foundational problem that science itself is not very useful in overcoming: there are an infinity of facts and observations to be made in this universe, which could be linked together by an infinity of hypotheses, rules, and laws, the vast majority of which we'll never have time to even check, and most of which are randomly, probably wrong. By what mechanism do scientists pick and choose likely courses for research efforts? What constitutes an "interesting" scientific venture, or problem? When is it reasonable to abandon expenditure of time and money on a particular course of research?

These are all questions whose answers are heavily influenced, even in the careers of the most brilliant researchers, by means that are often non-rational. Poincaire wrote about becoming convinced of the truth of one of his mathematical conjectures at the moment he stepped on a bus. Fleming nearly threw away the first petri dishes containing what he'd later find out were penicillin spores, as improperly sterilized and prepared. The microwave background radiation that survives from 380,000 years after the Big Bang, was first dismissed as a fault in the microwave amplifiers of the time.

Time and again, the most promising researchers have described their careers as being products of "luck" or happy accident. It's a problem Robert Pirsig discussed in his book Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, but his formulation and conclusions are not everyone's. Still, it's clear that there is some human process under science, that supports and guides successful scientific inquiry. Science is not a billion monkeys tapping randomly on a billion typewriters.
"... The mythos-over-logos argument points to the fact that each child is born as ignorant as any caveman. What keeps the world from reverting to the Neandertal with each generation is the continuing, ongoing mythos, transformed into logos but still mythos, the huge body of common knowledge that unites our minds as cells are united in the body of man. To feel that one is not so united, that one can accept or discard this mythos as one pleases, is not to understand what the mythos is. ..."
And
"The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality."
You don't have to call it common sense, if you don't want to call it that. But you can't deny that it exists, even if you want to call it intuition, talent, or genuis.

There's nothing common about common sense. Some folks have it, and a lot don't.
posted by paulsc at 3:17 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


.9999... doesn't equal 1 because of science, but because of how we define infinite series. We could define it to be something else, just because the guy in the video is so annoying.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:31 AM on August 31, 2009


Anybody who can't directly visualize 7 items, hasn't spent enough time watching baseball.

When he asked us to do it, I tried to visualize seven oranges. I instinctively visualized them first as a group of three and a group of four before I put the two groups together to visualize the seven. It may well be that people who can visualize larger groups immediately simply perform the same sort of action more rapidly and less consciously? Presumably, he's referring to a research study on the topic?

You don't have to call it common sense, if you don't want to call it that. But you can't deny that it exists, even if you want to call it intuition, talent, or genuis.

I'm pretty sure that there's significant research now that shows what we call these things is heavily dependent on years of learning that enables us to rapidly process the information and dismiss those choices that would be wrong. My reading of Pirsig was that this was precisely the process his protagonist was engaged in. He didn't just intuitively 'understand' what constitutes quality -- rather, it was a product of years of diligent work and study. Possibly practical rather than theoretical, but it wasn't 'common sense' in the sense of being innate or received wisdom.

Time and again, the most promising researchers have described their careers as being products of "luck" or happy accident.

But that luck requires the sort of fertile seedbed that a scientific training can provide to make any use out of it. Without that, how does anyone differentiate it from the zillions of other random thoughts that skip through our heads.

Maybe there are loads of people out there making common-sense breakthroughs in biology or particle physics or astronomy though, and I'm just not aware of them? Like all those people working on perpetual motion stuff, for example?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:10 AM on August 31, 2009


"... My reading of Pirsig was that this was precisely the process his protagonist was engaged in. He didn't just intuitively 'understand' what constitutes quality -- rather, it was a product of years of diligent work and study. Possibly practical rather than theoretical, but it wasn't 'common sense' in the sense of being innate or received wisdom. ..."
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:10 AM on August 31

I don't think we need to get into a big Metaphysics of Quality tangent here, but, actually, Pirsig came to think that reason itself was a barrier to understanding Quality (he became quite frustrated trying to teach Quality in his rhetoric classes in Bozeman, and left feeling that he'd failed his students and himself in not being able to satisfactorily define Quality so that it could be placed in the larger body of philosophical thought). According to him, it took him literally going mad to see Quality as a necessary precusor to rational thought, that necessarily exists outside rational definition. According to him, the Quality event generates rational thought, and the very existence and development of that rational thought is dependent on the continued unfolding of more pre-rational Quality events.

Whatever it is about human conciousness, that is pre-rational, yet powerful enough to shape our perception, is what he was talking about. And from that flows the mythos, and from the mythos flows the logos, according to Pirsig. Whether you go down that path with him, or not, it's a fairly good analogue, I find, to what most people mean when they speak of common sense.

And yet, it was also operant in people like J. Robert Oppenheimer, who often chose scientific personnel for the Manhattan Project, not on the basis of their vast scientific accomplishments, but on his own assessment of their innate talent, intelligence, and willingness to freshly approach a problem. As he put it later
“There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.”
posted by paulsc at 4:35 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd forgotten about that aspect of the book. (It's a very long time since I read it.) But I don't go down that path with him. Or even understand it, to be honest. Is there a single mythos? If so, what is it? I'm fucked if I know. For something that is supposedly grounded in common sense, you'd think he'd have an easier time explaining what it is in a way that would resonate with all of us. Isn't that what makes common sense common?

And while I think I know what he's getting at, he doesn't actually provide us with any reasons to accept his statements other than those that are grounded in his rhetoric.

Or Oppenheimer's account either, come to that. It seems to me that Oppenheimer was using his vast store of training and expertise to select for intelligence, creativity and an outsider's willingness to ask questions -- and while those things aren't necessarily grounded in formal scientific training, and I can see that there's value in that, it's pretty well impossible to make any use/sense of them without that context to evaluate them from. These days, I think it's fairly common to collaborate with people from different disciplines in an attempt to try and better achieve what Oppenheimer was seeking to do.

“There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.”

It shouldn't be too hard to dig a few up then, should it? Similarly, wouldn't one of these people be responsible for a major scientific breakthrough in Oppenheimer's lab and get some credit for that? And yet the name that we know is that of the great scientist, not his intuitive hires.

It seems to me that this is an overly romantic idea of epistimology that's had many adherents, but in practice, the people who seem to have those fortuitous accidents all seem to be people who practice science.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:14 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


My favorite example of a counterintuitive result: Suppose you have a string that is wrapped around the equator, and you want to lengthen it so that it is one foot above the equator all the way around. How much string do you need to add? Most people's guesses are far from what they calculate.

Having said that, I think the claim that these kinds of counterintuitive results mean your common sense doesn't have much value when you are doing science is wildly off the mark. For example, the time dilation and length contraction predicted by special relativity are certainly counterintuitive. But Einstein arrived at these results by relying on common sense. It just didn't make sense to him that the force on an electron by a current-carrying wire should be only magnetic if you were observing the electron while moving with the current, and both magnetic and electric if you were moving with the electron. The insight was his choice of which piece of common sense to trust, and the counterintuitive results are a logical consequence.
posted by Killick at 6:27 AM on August 31, 2009


You don't need to add any string at all. If you can't get five millionths of a percent worth of stretch out of the existing string, you're not trying.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 AM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


A foot?
posted by papercake at 8:16 AM on August 31, 2009


Let the radius of the earth be r.

The length of the string is 2 x Pi x r.

To raise it a foot, we make the radius r + 1 (in feet).

So the new length of the string is 2 x Pi x (r+1) = 2 x Pi x r + 2 x Pi.

The difference is 2 x Pi feet, or about 6 feet 4 inches.

This is one of those questions that didn't have a common sense answer to me. It would just have been a guess until I thought about it mathematically.
posted by unSane at 9:29 AM on August 31, 2009


"Suppose you have a string that is wrapped around the equator, and you want to lengthen it so that it is one foot above the equator all the way around. How much string do you need to add?"

Guess: More than double.

Calculated answer: 29,000 miles. More than the actual circumference of the Earth.
posted by daq at 10:37 AM on August 31, 2009


Crap. I fail at math.
posted by daq at 11:00 AM on August 31, 2009


Might want to check your method, daq.
posted by unSane at 11:01 AM on August 31, 2009


"Is there a single mythos? If so, what is it?"
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:14 AM on August 31

I don't know that it's too important that there is a unitary mythos. I think Pirsig would agree that what is necessary for the operation of human reason is, that the mythos (or if there are many mythos, all of them) resolve to a single logos. Experientially, we know that it does. You criticize an African witch doctor as ignorant, not crazy. A New Guinean cargo culter may wonder where you get all the stuff that comes out of airplanes when they land, but he will recognize a deeply disturbed human being dropped off by one of those planes, as insane, not just differently educated, within a few hours, language barrier or no. The Indians that met Cortez were mightily impressed by the horses and steel armor of his conquistadors, and thought them gods for the first few weeks of their acquaintance, but soon changed their opinion on the evidence of the greed of those conquistadors.

It appears that logos is elastic enough to account for cultural variation and belief, including scientific method (or the lack thereof), religion, and art, but not mental illness, the world over. That's pretty powerful evidence for Pirsig's metaphysics, that he only tangentially introduces, through his account of his own breakdown and recovery.

"... And while I think I know what he's getting at, he doesn't actually provide us with any reasons to accept his statements other than those that are grounded in his rhetoric. ..."

I'm guessing you forgot about all the motorcycle maintenance tips he dropped, too. :-) Pirsig was trying, throughout that book, to ground out his metaphysics in examples of their practical application, using the procedural discussions of how a person effectively maintains a mechanical device like a motorcycle. He talks about recovering the calm mental state needed for precise analytical thought and complicated diagnostic reason by doing cleaning as a physical ritual, to clear the mind, before beginning a troubleshooting or maintenance procedure. He talks about the practicality of using soft aluminum strips cut from beer cans as shims to fix his friend's loose handlebars, and how his friend would be horrified to know what the donor material was, since his bike was a brand new BMW; so he tells his friend that they were some spare German handle bar shims he happened to have left over from a previous project. He talks about gumption and value traps as impediments to good motorcycle maintenance, and ways to avoid them, by making notes and systemized layouts of spare parts. He talks about buying parts, and how to avoid losing your mind when you inevitably get the wrong part, and have to return it. That's all pretty grounded, practical, day to day stuff, in my memory.

But you know, it's an imperfect book, for all that. Pirsig's whole description of his time at the University of Chicago is based on a flawed recounting of the Socratic dialogue Phaedrus, and it took him some years of getting questions about all that from his readers, to acknowledge his factual errors in that part of the manuscript.

"... It shouldn't be too hard to dig a few up then, should it? Similarly, wouldn't one of these people be responsible for a major scientific breakthrough in Oppenheimer's lab and get some credit for that? And yet the name that we know is that of the great scientist, not his intuitive hires. ..."

Well, if you put it that way, I could give you the example of Richard Feynman, one of the young turks on the Los Alamos mathematical calculation team (under Hans Bethe), as an example. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, but when he went to Los Alamos in 1943, he'd just completed his PhD at Princeton, and although his thesis The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics was well received, and layed down important principles, he was clearly only at the start of his scientific career. And at Los Alamos, he actually did get some of the physics of the atomic bomb wrong - fortunately, there were better physicists about to correct his errors, and his day to day work was on the calculation team, but that does illustrate that young scientists often make imperious mistakes that derail them. Good ones recover, but the progress of a scientific career is not a smooth progress of stacking facts and theories toward Ultimate Truth. To succeed, you've to pick The Right Facts, and from them, Develop The Most Useful Theories.

And that, my skeptical friend, still takes "common sense," and a bit of pure luck, now and again.

I do think your view of the practice of science is a better description of late 20th century practice, than of earlier times. In almost every field, now, the low hanging fruit that could be easily plucked by the brilliant individual researcher is mostly in the basket. More and more, the very cost of experimental equipment and computational resources are requiring scientists to justify themselves through an increasingly byzantine grant process, to obtain funding to do their work. Grants go to those best able to rise through the maze of academic politics, and write the least risk intensive applications/proposals.

Even in fields that once favored the brilliant iconoclast, like astronomy and biology, the increasing need for computational support of research is forcing a greater need for team science, than has historically been the case. I don't know that that is a good thing; I understand that building the LHC requires Big Team Science, and I look forward to the discoveries such a beast promises. But the results that come out of the work there will be the promises of groups of people that they all did their jobs right, and will have to be checked by other specialized teams, to be accepted as new science. We're rapidly getting to the point that Appel and Haken reached in 1976, proving, by massive computation, the 4 color theorem, in that we're exploring ideas our individual brains can no longer hold, with tools no one of us can, any longer, individually construct or verify.

Feynman himself became very interested in all this, in his last years, and used his time on the space shuttle Challenger accident investigation board (the Rogers Commission) to explore the larger question of scientific accountability in a systems environment like NASA. Based on his minority report from the Rogers Commission, which was only included as an addendum, for political reasons, I think he'd be delighted by the idea of himself portrayed in Round Manhole Covers, or: If Richard Feynman applied for a job at Microsoft.
posted by paulsc at 12:20 PM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Common sense would tell you the sun revolves around the earth. You can see the sun move across the sky. Around us. The center. There is no center. There is no god.
posted by xjudson at 12:04 PM on September 1, 2009


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