[EAS]Common Sense, Death of

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu May 9 01:50:27 EDT 2002

Subject:   Common Sense, Death of

(from INNOVATION, 8 May 2000)

Much has been written about the qualities necessary to succeed in
business  -- everything from technological competence to an ability
to adapt to  change. But one often overlooked -- yet critical --
factor is common sense.  By its very name, common sense is assumed
to be, well, common. "It is  possessed by any human being who bears
even a modicum of sanity and  rationality," writes Henry Astorga.
"What is it then that makes people up  and down organizational ranks
and in their professional lives --  accomplishments and erudition
notwithstanding -- succumb to behaviors and  actions that reduce
them to asinine nincompoops?" Astorga cites notable  examples of
business, political and religious personalities who, despite a 
wealth of talents and professional accomplishments, have fallen from
public  adulation and grace because of their utter lack of common
sense. He writes  that while highly competent people share certain
traits, such as being  decisive, ethical, perceptive and empathetic,
"we can also find common  traits among those people who, in spite of
their intelligence, appear to be  devoid of commonsense. They are
self-absorbed, arrogant, insensitive, and  unethical among others.
Thus, might it be fair to contend that skills and  competencies may
propel us to untold heights of fame, fortune and mastery  but it is
commonsense that allows us to stay there?" (Asia Pacific  Management
Forum 29 Apr 2002)

More than common sense is threatened with extinction. What's really
happening is a steady migration away from broader principles toward
detailed prescriptive rules. Heads of organizations (presidents,
directors) are now seldom the "soul and conscience" of their
organizations. The particulars of their jobs are assumed to derive
from lists of responsibilities and from organizational charts.

Or take the current Enron et al. accounting scandals. In America,
accounting standards are defined by a byzantine web of accounting
rules, dating from the 1930s and now produced by the FASB, a
private-sector body staffed by accountants. Outside America
accounting rules lean more toward broad principles, particularly in
Britain, where the importance of providing a "true and fair" view of
a company's performance overrides specific rules. Rear a generation
of clever monkeys in a jungle of accounting (and other
organizational) rules, and "soul and conscience" and "true and fair"
become meaningless.

I don't have to remind anyone of the legal dimensions of common
sense giving way to a system of regulations that go too far and do
too little. One guide to that landscape is Philip Howard's "The
Death of Common Sense" (Random House, 1994)
<http://www.scottlondon.com/reviews/howard.html>. I've told you
about simple extension cords with ludicrously detailed safety
instructions <http://www.yale.edu/engineering/eng-info/msg00961.html>.
With an abundant supply of technology for customers with diminishing
technological common sense, all facets of technology become legal

Nor have the academic dimensions of the loss of common sense gone
unmentioned in these mailings. There are ever more Institutes for
the Study of [you name it]. And I'm not talking about the important
pursuits of new interdisciplinarities. Rather, what irritates me is
the "rediscovery" of fragments of a forgotten larger fabric of
common sense as subjects of specialized study. In the extreme we
would have an "Institute for Stupidity Studies." Not, mind you, an
"Institute for Studies in Good Sense," that would be too unfundably
vague. Rather, the "Institute for Stupidity Studies" would address
many distinct facets of stupidity, lending to each a certain
official acceptability, even inevitability, and culminating for each
in specific programs for remediation.


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