Black Tools

Common Nonsense

(by Hanspeter Schmid, published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, vol. 43, no. 6, pp. 7--8, November/December 1999.)

One of the most difficult things which experts in a certain field have to do is to discuss their field with other experts in front of laymen. The situation becomes even worse when these laymen are the ones who have to approve of an idea or to make decisions based on the experts' knowledge.

In such a situation many of the discussion tricks I described in the first four instalments of Black Tools can be applied, but there are three tricks that are excessively dangerous: Trick 28, «Convince the Jury»; Trick 31, «Declare yourself incompetent»; and Trick 30, «Authority and Common Sense.»

What many experts keep forgetting is that the way they discuss things in their field is hardly ever suitable outside their field. The audience normally lacks the education necessary for a deep understanding of the field. What's worse, the experts' education makes their minds narrower: it is difficult for them to understand the views of non-experts, to think the way laymen think. Their education pushes many experts beyond social, cultural and even natural reality, at least as long as they talk about their area of expertise.

If you are an expert who has to speak in front of laymen, you must be able to understand and speak their language as well as the language of your special field. If you can't do that, the audience will think that you are out of touch with reality, and you make yourself a helpless target for Tricks 28 and 31!

A statement may be correct from the point of view of your special knowledge, but if you cannot state it in common terms, your opponent can easily make fun of your statement. He makes the audience laugh, and if you cannot counter his joke, the «jury» is convinced, you are discredited, and Trick 28 has succeeded.

For example, a speaker might state that laughing gas, which is emitted by many plants when they grow, contributes seriously to the greenhouse effect and should be investigated properly. His opponent might then say: «And then, what would you like to do about it? Tell those plants to grow more slowly?»

There are only two ways out of this trap: Either you can explain in a lucid manner how the emission of laughing gas can be controlled, or you counter the joke with a joke of your own, like «Oh yes, we think that farmers should start using Bonsai wheat as soon as possible. Well, joking aside, the investigations we propose ...»

A more straightforward trick is number 31, to «Declare Yourself Incompetent.» If you know that the audience holds you in higher esteem than it does your opponent, you may counter a long explanation of his with «What you say may be right, but it is too complicated for me, I just don't understand it.» The audience hears the words «You're talking nonsense» between the lines.

This trick can be countered by saying «It must be easy for a person having your intelligence and knowledge to understand my idea, I must have explained it badly,» and then explaining it again in a way which makes the opponent understand, whether he wants to or not. Between the lines this says «You're right, you really just don't understand it.»

With Trick 31, the opponents actually try to assert their own authority. It is, however, much more common to cite other authorities whom the audience or the opponent esteems highly. I call this 30th trick «Authority and Common Sense,» since the latter can always be used as an authority.

What common sense is depends strongly on the group of people of to whom it is common. There is a common sense of Buddhists, Scots, Engineers, even of customers of the Jolly Judge Lounge Bar in Edinburgh. On the one hand, we cannot live without common sense, because we would otherwise have to re-invent all sorts of wheels for any decision we have to make. It is also virtually impossible to talk to somebody without heavily using common sense. Two Scottish Engineers having a drink in the Jolly Judge can draw on much more common sense and can talk much more easily with each other than can two people arbitrarily picked off Times Square in New York.

On the other hand, common sense is not very trustworthy, since many of its elements arise in much the same way: Two or three people discuss something and have an idea. Several others trust them and believe that they thought about the idea well enough and also tested it enough. This, of course, instills trust in even more people who then repeat the idea as a general truth without thinking much about it. From day to day the number of believers grows, until many of the others think, «Well, there must be some very good reasons for this idea, otherwise it wouldn't have so many supporters.»

The few people remaining who seriously thought about the idea but found it bad have to remain silent about it from then on, lest they are called rebels or smart asses. This also happens in science. For example, many historical «facts» which can be found in dozens of history books can be traced back to one single author who didn't even quote a reliable source.

The remaining two tricks in this part are much simpler than the ones I just discussed.

Trick 29, «Diversion,» is very common. If you realize that you are loosing, start to talk about something different which is, or is not, remotely related to the discussion topic. Many politicians use this trick in every interview. The only countermeasure is to ignore the diversion, but this is difficult to achieve without looking obnoxiously obstinate in the eyes of an audience.

Finally, Trick 32 is called «Pejorative Classification.» «Oh, that's not new! It's Idealism, Marxism, Pantheism, Atheism, Mysticism, Spiritualism, Liberalism, Communism ...» Several decades ago, many U.S. citizens had to pray for a good answer to this kind of classification. Alas, Trick 32 is almost impossible to avert if you get thrown into a class the relevant people really hate.

You might now be prompted to say «This is all very good in theory, but it is useless in practice.» Say that. I will deal with this 33rd trick next time.


Next Article (Part VI)   Hanspeter Schmid is an analog-IC designer and Ph.D.-degree student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich) who has an untamable interest in modern philosophy of science and society. He is an idealist, anarchist, pantheist, ecclecticist, cynic, relativist, realist, communist, socialist, polarising, liberal, conservative smart-ass. Don't hesitate to add any classes of your choice to this list.