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Do not be afraid to question common sense


The phrase “common sense” implies that the more correct perception of something is the one that is most commonly shared. But, common sense is not static — it is based on the intellect and knowledge of those who share the common space. Thus, it can sometimes be wrong. And if the wrong perception is treated as the right one, especially by voters or policymakers, we encounter a problem.

That notion is one I want to explore before we graduating seniors enter the next stage of our lives, before we become full members of the economic, scientific and political world that we will help shape.

We have moved from limited connectivity with the outside world and other sources of information in just the past two decades, to the interconnected world of the Internet. We now have information and opinions from a global community on economics, morality, religion and politics at our fingertips. This plethora of knowledge, when shared, can lead to a universal “common sense.” We’ve seen this in action with the international support for democratic shifts in the Middle East, greater support for women’s rights in countries that still oppress them or global opposition against copyright legislation that could restrict freedoms.

But, with all the wonderful outcomes of the nascent “global common sense,” there can still be cause for concern.

Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” On the other hand, he once noted, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Apropos to my topic, there is potential for the common sense of the global community to be wrong, even though the concept of a majority’s opinion being right remains among the best ways society gauges right or wrong.

We find ourselves in a situation in which so much information can be misused or misconstrued. In our emerging sense of immediate gratification via the Internet — combined with an unrelenting 24-hour news cycle that prefers faster news over verified news — the rise of punditry and media’s acceptance of deflecting or even ad hominem arguments, what becomes the “common sense” may not be the right one.

The misuse of numbers in political discourse is especially noteworthy. Numbers need proper context before we should accept and base opinions on them. For example, political pundits would have people believe more than 45 percent of U.S. citizens don’t pay taxes. But the fact is they do pay taxes, just not federal income tax. Why? Because they’re poor.

That number is not relevant, however, to those that would purposefully use it out of context — especially when today’s population has such a short attention span and turn to numbers like gold, ignoring the potentially larger context behind them.

This can also be applied on an international scale. For example, it is a fact that more Palestinians than Israelis died in the recent conflict in Gaza, and this is likely one reason that some have called it a “massacre.” But war is not a numbers game, and looking only at numbers is dangerously misleading.

A more contextualized piece of information is “less than 1-to-1.” That is an estimated ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in the Gaza War, and according to U.K. Commander Richard Kemp, it is “by far the lowest in any asymmetric conflict in the history of warfare.”

This is lower than estimated ratios from NATO operations in Afghanistan (3-to-1) and campaigns in Kosovo (4-to-1).

Numbers can mean a lot. They can mean the support for a greatly funded military and an underfunded education or space program. They can show a disproportionate tax rate, or amount of people in support of a cause. And numbers, like general information, can be spread globally in mere moments. It is up to us, therefore, to properly digest this and to weed out misinformation or find the right context. This will lead to a global common sense — about economics, rights and more. We will soon be the leaders who take up the mantle of responsibility. Let us do it with a fuller, deeper, more nuanced understanding of the world in which we live.

Ehud Cohen is a School of Engineering senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering.

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