B – Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom is a broadly held view on a subject, which regrettably is too often, if not almost always, based on the misuse or misunderstanding of available information, and less than careful reading of published material. It is often rooted in beliefs established by tradition, bias, hearsay, myth and emotion and fostered by all forms of the media, including popular books.

Even scientific research is not immune to the misuse or misunderstanding of available information, as evidenced by healthy, ongoing debate in that community, and thereby makes its own unfortunate contribution to conventional wisdom. As a result, it is necessary to look beyond media reports on such research, any summary provided by the researchers and even the full text of the research itself. It is necessary to delve into the cited references and any opposing views. In the end, individually, we are inevitably left with a bewildering mass of less than complete information and have to use our intellect and common sense, as best we can, to evaluate it.

This is one thing that Monbiot got right in his book “Heat”. This problem is touched on by him on page xxiv of the Introduction. So, the book itself should be viewed as largely just his personal judgment based on some information for each of a wide spectrum of specialty areas. The necessary evaluation is difficult enough in any one area let alone to be as far ranging as he, and others like him, attempt to be.

In this connection I recommend a good primer on the subject of conventional wisdom. It compares conventional wisdom to a careful evaluation of information on a variety of subjects such as cheating and crime to sports and child-rearing. The important distinction is that no moral judgments are made about any of them. The underlying information is presented in an attempt to illuminate cause and effect rather than just correlation or coincidence, the latter being fertile ground for conventional wisdom. The research is by Steven Levitt, an economist. Why an economist? The book agues that: morality is the way that people would like the world to work, whereas economics represents how it actually does work. As economics is a science of measurement, it has developed powerful analytical tools that can be used anywhere where sufficient information is available.

The book is titled “Freakonomics”, which unfortunately tends to send a message that trivializes the nature of the content, but the authors vigorously defend their choice. I would also add that the book has created a lot of controversy and criticism to which the authors appear to have responded adequately.

Steven Levitt graduated from Harvard University in 1989 and received his PhD from MIT in 1994. At thirty-six he is a full professor in the University of Chicago’s economics department, which is a recognized leader in economic studies. He is an editor of the Journal of Political Economy, a leading publication in the field. It is reputed that he is at the top of many universities’ poaching list.

In the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, the creator of the term, “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking”, and “Whenever conventional views reach such a crescendo as we see today, with people everywhere jumping on the bandwagon of ‘truth’, the smart money and people have long since moved on from the hype”.

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