Why Common Sense Doesn't Make Sense: The Paradox of Knowing

Hi all it’s Fabian from the think-team! Today I’d like to make you think 😉 but also reflect on how you think.


A few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend. As a Journalist, he brought up several topics he covered that included problems in rural areas of Bali. We briefly touched upon some of the most disastrous solutions introduced based on western “beliefs”. One of them was a big project to help rural societies from getting Malaria by distributing free Mosquito nets. These nets were very useful, but they weren’t used as mosquito nets. It was reported that these nets ended up being used for fishing, protecting crops, making chicken coops, and even wedding veils... What was hoped to be a simple 'groundbreaking’ solution for public health, became a catastrophe for the environment with continued overfishing and water pollution. But at least someone had a nice wedding?



Either way, this is a prime example of introducing solutions without understanding the local context. My friend then concluded with “common sense is one of the most dangerous beliefs one can have”. I was intrigued by this statement, as it took me a second to fully understand it.


To understand this, ask yourself these questions: How often do I expect people to understand exactly what I mean when I say something? How often have I been misunderstood? How often have my ideas been misinterpreted?


If you can answer “often” to most of these questions, let’s talk about the paradox of knowing.


The more you know, the more you actually don’t know. Bear with me. The more you know, you learn that there is more that you don’t know. You realize that the unknown still exists, as it is a concept that still occupies space. A negative space. If you’re not familiar with the concept of negative space, the easiest way to see it is through a classic optical illusion called the Rubin’s vase.


This picture can be interpreted differently by different people. Some may notice the face first, some may notice the vase first. Either way, this illustrates that you are able to see one due to the other. If you see the Vase, the face is the negative space. Vice versa. Philosophically, I think this image is exceptionally amazing because it illustrates the duality of life. The concept that something you don’t know is not nothingness. It's something.


Okay that may easily be going off topic, but the point of this exercise is to allow yourself to acknowledge the idea that others may know something you don’t. If you haven’t, then you may easily tunnel vision into your own thoughts. Being so deep in your own realm of knowledge, that you may actually get blinded by your 'expertise'. This was apparent in the mosquito net case. A lot of assumptions were made before the solution was introduced. It was assumed that everyone had common sense, but everyone’s definition of common sense is different. Common sense easily becomes an egocentric assumption. It is entertaining to see the irony, that the knowledgeable is not knowledgeable enough to understand that people lack the same knowledge the knowledgeable have acquired. Say that 10 times as a tongue twister. Simply, there is always a knowledge gap.

In a less extreme case, Maya recently wrote a blog about daily workers and the challenges she encountered in giving instructions. If you’re an expert in something, there is a high you won’t recognize the existence of a knowledge gap between you and your audience. You've tunnelvisioned and you assume people know what’s exactly on your mind. Giving instructions is a prime example of where common sense would not be in your favor.

In the bigger and more extreme case, we see more and more examples of many modern western solutions being introduced to local problems the wrong way. As a result, they are left unused. Solar panels being left in the dirt. Biogas being left underground and unused...


That’s why here in su-re.co, we do our best at properly understanding the local context when providing solutions. Our biogas digester is a result of two European Comission projects. The technology was not selected based on assumptions, but based on research involving careful considerations of the entire socio-technical system. It is a frugal-eco innovation. You can read all the details about it in our previous blogs: Think Locally: Why Small is Grand (su-re.co), Biogas: creating the future with ancient technology (su-re.co), Portable biogas as Frugal Eco-Innovation to address climate change (su-re.co). Oh, and also in our publications list.


To jump into depth on how to approach rural problems would be a blog on its own, or in fact, a research paper on its own. In research, we may need a more “reflexive” approach as our CEO Tak pointed out in his blog. A very interesting approach to understanding how things work by having a third-person view when you are approaching problems. To not jump into solutions that you think work in your head.


Back to the smaller scale of communication, I learned the importance of semantics. Never assume someone can understand your point based on the words you understand. Everything needs to be tailored.


So in short, never assume common sense exists. Acknowledge the bias and flaws of the human brain. Counterintuitively, knowing your limits will make actually you better understand how the world works. Because only in that way are we able to share ideas to others and eventually to the world. And sharing is caring :)


Thanks for reading! I hope I got my message across (otherwise I may have easily made the assumption that common sense exists 😱)

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