Is or isn’t that something useful?
It was in North Korea, where I was teaching General Biology and Physiology for one semester a few years ago, when Prof Thomas Erren sent me an e-mail, asking me if I wanted to join him and his co-worker Melissa Koch on a project to critically assess whether “common sense” helped or hindered science. As a foreigner, at no time being allowed to leave the Pyongyang campus except for a brief shopping period with my government-appointed “minder” on a Saturday or Sunday, I gladly agreed.
Common sense can be defined as something what people believe or are convinced of, based on impressions gathered through a person’s senses in order to derive commonalities in them. Einstein is said to have mused “Common sense invents and constructs no less in its own field than science does in its domain”. And yet, like Olson stated “Common sense is like sanity; everybody needs it, but nobody can define it”. Common sense is frequently expressed in proverbs, which show agreements, but also disagreements with each other. For instance: “Birds of a feather flock together”, but “Opposites attract each other”. Or “You don’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but “You are never too old to learn”. Such kind of folk wisdom is found in every culture, but whether statements like “Chien qui aboie ne mord pas” (all bark and no bite) or 百聞は一見に如かず (a picture is worth a 100 [in English 1000] words) or “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” are, in fact, correct when put to the test, is what needs to be investigated. (The apple and doctor saying, by the way, might have been more correct with garlic instead of the apple as modified in: “A garlic a day, keeps everyone away!”).
Let me start with some examples of how common sense, in the end, triumphed over the scientific opinion of some learned people. Fishermen in Italy had noticed that their fishing yields were related to the tides and the tides to the phase of the moon. When this relationship was mentioned to the famous Galileo Galilei, he rejected the idea outright. Had he heeded what the fishermen’s common sense had told them, Galileo would not have failed to propose a correct theory of the tides which could have saved him a lot of embarrassment. Common sense was also involved in predicting the correct cause of stomach ulcer (some “little stomach bug”, as people called it). But this notion was ridiculed for generations of doctors until Barry Marshall and Robyn Warren finally proved that stomach ulcers were caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and were awarded with a Nobel Prize for their discovery in 2005. And while we are at it: dismissed by physicians as nonsense until 2007 (because only microorganisms and not the cold weather or the sensation of ‘feeling cold’ could cause the common winter respiratory tract infections with sore throats and running noses, was their opinion), common sense prevailed: it was shown in 2007 that cold weather stress leads to vasoconstrictions in the respiratory tract mucosa and suppression of immune responses. The consequence is an increased susceptibility to infections that occurs when feeling cold.
But common sense need not, of course, always be right. That no living organism large or small should be able to survive in boiling water made such common sense, that one could almost call it a ‘dogma’ – until in 1977 Robert Ballard happened to discover the first hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the ocean! Not only was there a veritable oasis in the lightless depth at an enormous atmospheric pressure, but there were large numbers of worms, mussels, crabs, even fish, and other organisms, all existing without the constant ‘rain of food’ from above. Their existence depended on bacteria resistant to boiling water, with Pyrococcus furiosus growing best in water of 100°C and Metanopyrus kandleri even thriving and reproducing at 120°C. The examples show that prejudice, rejection of novel ideas, or uncritical acceptance of old ones, combined with an unwillingness to scientifically test what is expressed as common sense are what really hinders scientific progress. Put differently, scientists must have an open mind and neither uncritically accept nor rashly reject what common sense suggests. And now it’s my dinner time and I’m glad I just finished this blog before because “Plenus venter non studet libenter!” (Makes common sense, doesn’t it?).
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