When I became a dad, my grandmother gave me some advice (which is quite rare, actually). She told me to stop listening to all the parenting advice, reading the parenting books and scanning the parenting blogs. I would only start doubting myself. She told me that when she was a mother, they had one book: Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare. The book opens with: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

I initially thought: ‘things are different now.’ We’re an information society, working in an information economy and inundated by a dizzying array of information. The funny thing is, with all this information, it actually seems easier to have no idea what’s really going on in the world—which might have been what my grandmother was talking about.

For example, against my better judgment, I’ve found myself engaged in a political debate on the Internet a few times. Mostly, it resorts to name-calling but occasionally; you get into it with someone who wants to really get to the bottom of an issue. Someone will make a case and provide a link with supporting information.

You’ll check it out, it seems reasonable, but within 20 seconds, someone is providing a link supporting the opposite view. You look into it, it seems totally reasonable.

What’s going on? You’d think with nearly all of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, we could start making informed arguments and maybe, we’d actually solve a problem or two.

First off, we must acknowledge the trickiness of truth, which can be more of a value than some universal axiom. I’m partial to the idea that there are axiomatic truths out there—and I think it wouldn’t be too hard to point some out. But in many cases, truth is what the “experts” tell us it is. To ancient Mayans, it was “true” that human sacrifice made corn grow. And for most of human history, it’s been “true” that women were somehow naturally inferior to men.

Who’s telling us what to believe now?

Of course, experts are still trying to get you to listen to them. Check out this article, the first line of which reads: “If science doesn’t inform the decisions we make, the consequence is that people suffer.”

Oh no! Tell us what to do, science! The author is basically arguing for the primacy of but one of seven methods for making decisions. Sometimes use of science works and we can get a great optimum result. Fantastic! But very often science is just not applicable because the situation is too chaotic, or the emotions surrounding the choice are too intense, or the time and cost of getting facts is prohibitive, or supposed knowledge is debatable.

So, in many cases, science doesn’t even apply. It seems to me that most people’s everyday problems revolve around economic concerns. I don’t think biology or physics can help with that. But can economics?

I’m skeptical, especially considering the current state of affairs. Almost no one can understand what these economists are talking about—which is of great use to politicians, whose justifications for policies often go something like: “Well, you wouldn’t understand, because, you know, based on median incomes adjusted for inflation, compared to 1968 milk prices, the output of the technology sector is, well, with nominal wages and all, aggregated. Here, look at this graph with Greek symbols on it. Just trust me. Go shopping. Please? And encourage your congressman to vote yes on the JOBS bill.” (Which really stands for “Just Outsourced your Business to Singapore.”)

Here’s an article on modern economics if you’re interested. It’s quite enlightening regarding how totally unenlightening economics is.

So what’s the answer? Well, I see two possible options:

  • Become highly specialized in one specific field, stick to it and find comfort that there’s one thing you truly understand. 
  • Use common sense. 
Considering the ship has probably sailed (for me at least) regarding the first prescription, let’s unpack common sense.

This can be tricky as well. If you’re a politician, for example, it might be common sense to “bend the truth” a bit—while campaigning or presenting a policy proposal to your constituency.

It might be common sense for a CEO to lay off hundreds of employees if profits aren’t good enough.

But we don’t want to advocate lying or depriving others of their livelihood. The truth is, common sense isn’t really “common.” It’s not some moral axiom that applies to every individual or every level of society. It’s highly personal and using it only requires a bit of awareness.

I had a co-worker once when I was a young, fiery fellow. He had spent most of his life working a high-paying, but unfulfilling job and, at the age of 45, left it all to become a helicopter pilot. I was struggling with how to approach life and I went to him for advice. He said: “For me, when I’m wondering what to do, I just ask myself: ‘Does a particular course of action take me closer or further away from what I want?’”

Now that’s a common sense question! And the answer isn’t going to be the same for everyone. For a money-driven individual, quitting a high-paying job at 45 to learn a new skill might take them further away from what they want in life. For my co-worker, it took him closer.

The world can be unbelievably confusing. It might seem like we can’t trust facts, or experts or authority figures. In the end, that just leaves you. What makes the most sense to you?

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