Thursday, 17 September 2015

Common Sense is Officially Dead

Dead as a dodo.

So, have you noticed how many of my posts start with "so"? 

I know it's grammatically incorrect (although I like to think I get lots of leeway as a foreigner). I like to pretend I do it because, like Seamus Heaney translating Beowulf, I want to give an impression of oral re-telling. But really it's because much of the blog is a bit non-sequitur, and I feel I must at least nod to the fact that, you know, one post ago, I was talking about something completely different.

Or, like today, because the reason I fell off the internet this week is not really mine to share or comment about, so I'm just pretending, that, erm, let's talk about stuff as if nothing had happened.

Wow, that was a long intro.

With very little to do with what I actually want to talk about.

Common sense. Or the lack thereof.

You see, there is this utterly dull program on television called "Deal or no deal" (if your country does not yet have a form of it on daytime television, count your lucky stars). For me it is the dullest program in the universe because it relies on odds and likelihood and chance.

Now, before I go any further, I must clarify, I am NOT good at maths. It's a foreign language to me. Except that if indeed it were a foreign language, I would stand a chance of one day mastering it. Not so with maths. 
As a result, my position towards maths and statistics, is one of intense suspicion. I don't know anything about these things so I am very wary when people use them.


In the case of "Deal or no deal", the whole premise seems to me relying on a fallacy (although, I may be wrong, because see above, i-math-erate -it's like illiterate, but for maths). 

For those who don't know, the program relies on 20 people, each having a box they don't know the contents of. Half of the contents are good prizes, half of the contents bad prizes. One of the 20 people is chosen to be the contestant, and he essentially bets on the contents of his box, which the "banker" tries to buy off him. The "banker" wants to offer an amount smaller than the contents of the box, whilst the contestant wants to get more money than is really in his box. To help the bartering, the contestant opens other people's boxes.

Are you yawning yet?

So am I.

Now, I remember having a very long argument with a guy who loved this program, whilst I thought it was utterly dull, because, as far as I could see, the odds weren't actually changing at any point. The contestant had a one in two chance of having a joke prize and a one in twenty chance of having the highest prize. Just because he had opened 8 boxes with joke prizes and one with a good prize, didn't change the fact that he had as strong a chance of having a joke prize as a good one.

Just like if someone is expecting her 10th child, after having had 9 boys, her odds are still 50/50 for a boy or a girl.

Now, if I am wrong, feel free to correct me.

My understanding of statistics is hardly something I rely on to feed my self-esteem.

But it made me think of something. The death of common sense.

There used to be a stock character in folk tales and novels, which I would call the "Shrewd Peasant". Someone with very little learning, but enough awareness of the cunning and unworthiness of humanity to undo the greatest minds with simple common sense. I don't think the Shrewd Peasant exists anymore.

No-one's fool.

I think that despite the progress of literacy and math-racy (it's a thing, I tell you, I should know since I fail at it), we are much easier to fool than we used to be.

We trust numbers and statistics because we think we understand them. But really we don't.

We distrust philosophy because we don't understand it, and therefore assume it is not worth knowing.

We still know as little as the Shrewd Peasant, because the world is getting ever more complex, but we are no longer aware of this fact. We are both ignorant, and conceited about our own knowledge and achievement.

Here's another proof of the death of common sense. One of my favourite bloggers (Hi Kendra!) shared an article about how parents of four or more children are apparently the happiest. Immediately, someone commented about how so many children would use up the dwindling resources of our planet, and steal them from other countries.

The lady who posted the comment wasn't ill-intentioned, she was just eschewing common sense for the sake of a grand idea.

In her mind, more children = more food consumed = less food for people who already don't have food. It sounds logical.

It really isn't.

Because common sense.

Now, I propose a new easy-to-use maxim for people who want more common sense in their lives (and we all could do with a dose of it - yes, especially me):


What Would Shrewd Peasant Do?

WWSPD, if someone came to him saying "People don't have enough food in Africa, you must therefore not have more than one child or accept the starvation of Africans on your conscience"?

Or more to the point, What Would Shrewd Peasant Say? 

I think he would say something along the lines of "If I have one, instead of, say, four, children, how will the food of my hypothetically de-created children go to the starving Africans? Am I to send it over there, working hard for them instead? How will the food get to them? Am I to also travel over there to give it?"

Or maybe, "If I only have one child, will s/he be able to take care of both me and my wife? And my parents? And her parents? All on his/her own?"

Or perhaps he will recall the giant pile of decaying food he saw in a landfill near his house, tons upon tons of vegetable, rice, pasta, meat, and point out that the landfill looked more immoral than welcoming 6 babies into the world.

Maybe he would look at the fruit of such engineering of demography, mention China, or eugenics (eugenicists were nothing if not well-intentioned, for the greater good of "Society", you know).

We may even be in luck , and have a Shrewd Peasant with a long memory, who will point out that he heard all of that before, there was that Malthus guy in the eighteenth century, who calculated with Scientific Methods that unless people stopped having more than two children, they would starve to death in the following generation. He will then point out that he feels quite alive, for someone who should have starved to death 200 years ago.

More likely though, the SP would be cleverer than I am, put on a stupid face so the arguing do-gooder dismisses him as a no-account ignorant fool, and leave him to raise his children in peace.

That would be truly wise.

I hope to get there one day.


  1. Nice to hear from you again! :-) Hope all is well. Of course my first reaction to your title, before reading any further, was "This is news?" But I think you may have hit on something with the idea that we know even less now than we used to, partly out of arrogance in thinking we know so much more. Shrewd observation, that.

    My favorite shrewd peasant story is an old Mexican folk tale of the man who never used a spoon more than once. I missed Kendra's posting that article; I'll have to go look it up. You know, when my five children give me another moment. :-)

    1. It was on her Facebook page. I should know better than to look at comments on Facebook! ;-)

  2. hello - just another way to think about the statistics. What if you opened 10 cases and all were joke prizes. Would you still say the contestant had only a 50/50 shot at a good prize? What if 19 cases had been opened, 10 joke and 9 good?
    You see, you can use one set of language about his original 50/50 chance - but once you know some of the other results your certainty of what he has in hand can change.

    On the other hand - good to see you writing again. -- Lisa

    1. Indeed, the odds do change once you've opened all of one category. But the game rarely goes that far, the candidate will generally accept an offer long before. So I still put it in the "dull" category! ;-)

  3. I think you're spot on with regard to common sense vs "logical" things. For the .atj, what you need is that concept of conditional probability. E.g. if someone is having their 9th child, they indeed have a 50/50 chance of boy or girl. Bit if you know that your neighbor has 4 boys and 4 girls, and you see 3 girls playing in their yard, when the door opens again it's a 4/5 chance that a bit will come out.

    1. Suspicious Shrewd Peasant will still assume the game is rigged somehow! :-) But I do see your point!

  4. Argh sorry for all the typos, phone -_-"