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April 8, 2012

The debunking of conventional wisdom

I had an interesting discussion with a friend who never ceases to provoke me to think more deeply about simplistic wisdom.

Up to about 50 years ago, conventional wisdom was not a pejorative. The consensus opinion of experts and the public was often regarded as correct and, hence, wise.

This was in an era of humankind in which there was little that could differentiate the correct from the incorrect. We may each have our own subjective views, but there were few objective tests all would accept as the final arbiter of the truth.

Around the time John Kenneth Galbraith published "The Affluent Society" and redefined the meaning of conventional wisdom, tools of economics and the social sciences were increasingly brought to bear on commonly held beliefs about our social institutions and agencies.

As we began to look more closely at some of these "truisms," we discovered they were not always true. Hence, conventional wisdom was redefined to mean a false wisdom based less on good science but more on opinion and what we want to believe.

There are hypotheses that can be tested in a scientific manner. The study of economics takes assumptions and hypotheses and develops conclusions that can inform our decisions.

Unfortunately, thoughtful wisdom often flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Galbraith attempted to make us aware of our human tendency to accept as true what most people believed, often because it was most comfortable for the greater number of people. It allows us to maintain our fragile status quo.

Imagine if we held to such convenient truths to which we have subscribed in the past. The world would still be flat, a woman's place would still be in the home, those who are different from us would be so because they are less enlightened, and a glorious past would unfailingly dictate an equally glorious future. We can lay on our laurels, parlay our privilege, and take security in our social class.

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