Common Sense: Don’t believe everything you think!

Paul Krugman has a great editorial in the New York Times today, wherein he criticizes economists (and the Minneapolis Fed’s president in particular) for saying that unemployment is deeply rooted and therefore difficult to solve. It begins like this:

“What can be done about mass unemployment? All the wise heads agree: there are no quick or easy answers. There is work to be done, but workers aren’t ready to do it — they’re in the wrong places, or they have the wrong skills. Our problems are “structural,” and will take many years to solve.”

And then he said something that sounded a gi-normous gong for me:

“But don’t bother asking for evidence that justifies this bleak view. There isn’t any.”

I encounter this phenomenon time and time again in my efforts to advocate for the users of the websites for which I’m responsible. Content owners will come to me with all sorts of statements about who’s using their content, what they’re using it for, and why the way they (the content owners) think the content should be formatted, organized, etc. is the best way for their users.

But when I ask, “How do you know that?” They immediately perceive a roadblock to accomplishing their objectives. When I show them survey results that call their statements into question (even if the data don’t contradict the statements directly), they get angry, and tell me that they’re the content owners and that it should be done the way they want it. I’ve taken sometimes to calling some of them “data-free.”

“Common Sense” is a dangerous basis for strategy…or almost anything, for that matter. In fact, rather than  common “sense,” we ought to call it “Common Presumption.” If I were to upack the sentence, “It’s just common sense,” I would restate it as:

“This is what I believe to be true because it draws upon a reservoir of beliefs held by people who are like me, who see things in the same way as I do, and who are close to me, and so we don’t need to look any more closely at the situation.”

Why is that? Why do people not want to look more closely at the situation? Why do people not want to know the “truth” about the phenomenon they understand by “common sense?” And more importantly, why do we allow each other to get away with it?

I think part of the answer is fear: Fear of being proven wrong. Fear of having to rework an entire understanding of the universe. Fear of having to work out a whole new set of principles about how it all works. I can sympathize with those reasons. It’s exhausting (and it’s also why psychotherapy takes so much work). A little bit of information can be a fundamental threat to one’s worldview.

But on the other hand, why else are we engaged in this work? Content owners: Don’t you want to know that you’re accomplishing what you say you want to? The cynic would say, “Probably not. They just want to check off their objectives for the Balanced Scorecard.”

I don’t have any simple answers either. In the United States, we’re not really taught critical thinking anymore. Some of the skills come from science and math, it’s true: The scientific method is deliberate and at its best, is to be used precisely to counteract “common sense.” But some of the skills are part of art and literature, too: Being able to distinguish our own perspectives from others’. Being able to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously and to interpret where they do and don’t cross.

To my content owners (and yours!) I say, “Don’t believe everything you think.”–At least until you ask your users directly and gather some evidence to see whether you’re right.

About: rsgracey

@rsgracey has spent his life moving from one area of interest to another, collecting knowledge, skills, and experience (and TOOLS!) for a wide range of creative and professional fields. If you need someone to help you "think through" any problem of information, communication, and the community, don't hesitate to call him in.


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  2. […] nice post up today about how when content stakeholders *say* what their users want, they are really making presumptions rather than basing their arguments on […]

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