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Book of Matthew: Unconventional, unwise

Published: March 20, 2009
Section: Opinions


“Conventional wisdom.” Now there’s a term you’ve probably heard before. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s defined as “the generally accepted belief, opinion, judgment, or prediction about a particular matter.”

But that’s a boring definition. Personally, I liken conventional wisdom to carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide is made up of two common elements—carbon, the chemical basis of all life forms, and oxygen, a requirement for the life processes of all aerobic organisms. While these two elements are harmless on their own, together they form a deadly compound that has a tendency to suffocate people when their lungs mistake it for oxygen.

Similarly, conventional wisdom is made up of two simple concepts—conventional, defined as “based on or in accordance with what is generally done or believed,” and wisdom, defined as “accumulated philosophic or scientific learning.” They are also relatively harmless on their own, but when combined, they form a new concept that suffocates intelligent discourse when our brains mistake it for solid logical reasoning.

There is only one difference between conventional wisdom and carbon monoxide that I can think of (apart from the obvious “state of matter” thing). Most of us are fully aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide, installing fancy carbon monoxide detectors in our homes to ensure that the colorless, odorless gas does not threaten our families. But at the same time, most of us have not attempted to protect our homes from the dangers of conventional wisdom.

It’s not a surprising difference. After all, it’s easy to leave the TV on and keep watching the nice-looking reporter whose reporting starts to get a little too “analytical.” Or to keep reading the beautifully written magazine article whose author could have done a little less assuming and a little more reporting. Or to keep surfing the Internet, where juicy rumors are little more than a click away.

That’s the poorly kept secret to conventional wisdom. It’s easy. It doesn’t take much in the way of intelligence to perpetuate conventional wisdom, only a small degree of acceptance. This is the worst thing in the world for our too often over-cluttered minds, which claw for mental shortcuts to help them grasp complicated issues, and it’s the reason why bits of conventional wisdom have been floating around since humans first learned how to exchange information.

Let’s take a look at some examples. What’s that? The economy is on your mind? Well, you and everyone else, friend. But there are some great pieces of conventional wisdom that have to do with the economy. Like “business is efficient.” It’s funny how people can still say that with a straight face while banks are collapsing all around them. Or how about the slightly more pointed, “liberals are socialists who want to raise taxes and ruin our economy.” That one combines a misinterpretation of tax policy (higher taxes for the wealthy didn’t stop the boom of the 1990’s) with a misunderstanding of socialism (it’s not really about taxes… anyway, in Soviet Russia taxes raise YOU!)

Being the political junkie that I am, I’ve always appreciated this one: “America is a center-right nation.” Given the results of the last election, it’s just laughably ironic. But there was a time when it was endlessly repeated.

Of course, this isn’t to say that conventional wisdom is only a present-day problem. There are plenty of examples that go way back, most notably the idea that “the Earth is flat,” or that “the sun revolves around the Earth.” Yes, it’s ridiculous to us now, but at the time, a lot of people thought that the Earth was the center of everything. And that we could fall off of it.

Actually, if I’m going to talk about old conventional wisdom, I guess one of the oldest would be the concept of god(s). But in order to avoid having a small inquisition come after me, I won’t go there.

The point is, conventional wisdom is a cop out. It’s a simple, easy to understand, often factually inaccurate explanation for concepts that we don’t want to take the time to actually understand in full. I’m not trying to sound holier-than-thou—we all fall victim to it at some point. Sometimes it’s easier to take someone at their word than to actually do research. But just because something is easy does not mean that it is a smart move. If you want to learn something, you should learn it. Get the facts behind it. Read as many opinions as possible, both positive and negative. Be prepared to constantly refine your own opinion on that particular subject.

True, this is much harder work than repeating some talking point you heard from one of your friends. But some things are worth hard work. You wouldn’t let your house fill up with carbon monoxide, would you?