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L.Srikumar Pai
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Columnists: Sangeetha Sridhar, Dr.Rajan Philips, Hasan Kamoonpuri, Prof.C.F.Joseph

Reflections-By Dr Rajan Philips

Common Sense – An Uncommon Trait?

( This motivational article was published in Oman Observer , one of the leading Newspapers in Oman. The article is reproduced with the permission of the author )



Dr. Rajan Philips: Centuries ago, French writer and thinker Voltaire said: Common sense is not so common.’ What is common sense then? The dictionary definition of common sense as ‘sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts’ does give us some idea of this quality. It is the application of good sense and sound judgment in practical matters. Is it allied to or different from intelligence, is a pertinent question.

Intelligence is raw potential comparable to an ore waiting to be mined. It is determined thorough special tests and quantified as IQ (Intelligence Quotient) but we do not yet have any such scale to describe the level of common sense.

The measure of the IQ is used for entry to special educational programmes, courses and professions. We have the high IQ society MENSA for those with exceptional IQs. Such ‘brilliant’ minds may do very well in academic spheres. But if they lack common sense they would be in for rude shocks and surprises in everyday life.

It would be wonderful to have the right blend of intelligence and common sense but unfortunately, they don't necessarily go hand in hand. It is a common gripe of parents that their kids are quite intelligent but often lack even a modicum of common sense.

Some great minds, with very high IQ, obviously, were at times known to exhibit total lack of common sense. The following amusing anecdote from the life of Isaac Newton, a Titan among physicists and mathematicians, is an interesting illustration.

Newton had a pet cat that wanted to go in and out of the room in which he was working on his light experiments. Opening and shutting the door constantly as a time consuming distraction for the scientist. So he solved the problem by making a ‘cat door’ by cutting a hole in the door and covering it with a cloth. But when the cat was joined by a kitten, Newton asked his carpenter to cut a smaller hole for it. Only when the bemused carpenter pointed out that the original hole would do for the cat and the kitten, did Newton realize the import of his ludicrous request and must have had a hearty laugh! 

The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care written by Dr. Benjamin Spock and first published in July 1946 is one of the biggest best-sellers of all time. By 1998, it had sold more than 50 million copies, and translated into 39 languages. Obviously, common sense is a rare virtue.

Does scientific knowledge run contrary to common sense? Yes and no.  Centuries ago, common sense said the world was flat; the sun and the moon were the same size; and the Earth was the centre of the universe; science disproved all these notions. Soon these scientific findings reshaped the common sense view of the following age. In the absence of such progressive developments the common sense view of life would have been limited. In fact, in early history, human inability to comprehend the complex and awesome forces of nature gave birth to numerous superstitions (common sense then!)  that continued down the ages.

Research on common sense capability is an integral part of study on artificial intelligence. A day may come when we talk in terms of CSQ (Common Sense Quotient). But till then, we would rely on our common sense to gauge if we have adequate supply of this precious attribute!

A few quotes:

  • The freethinking of one age is the common sense of the next. -Matthew Arnold

  • Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for a man's upper chamber, if it has common sense on the ground floor.-Victor Hugo
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