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Does It Make Sense?
posted by admin on 28/08/06

Clarity, accuracy, and comprehensiveness are building blocks of sound thinking, but pulling them together requires good sense.

Sound thinking by definition makes sense, even though it may at first appear illogical or counterintuitive. When people look back asking, “Why didn’t I catch that?” they must sometimes admit they failed to apply this most basic test. It can happen to anyone, regardless of mental prowess or station in life.

Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, possessed remarkable statistical skills. Few could match his capacity to keep track of millions of minute details. McNamara tried to manage details of the war much as he had run Ford Motor Company when he served as its President. In his new governmental capacity, the numbers he compiled daily all indicated the United States was making progress in the war. North Vietnamese casualties far exceeded those suffered by the U.S. or South Vietnamese armies. While McNamara served as Secretary of Defense, the North retreated after every major battle. But for a long time McNamara, with all his proven management skills, missed one fact that common sense told nearly every American soldier who fought in Vietnam: Many South Vietnamese soldiers lacked the will to fight while the North Vietnamese troops would sacrifice almost anything to win the war. As one historian accurately summed up McNamara’s failing: “McNamara’s statistics and calculations were of no value at all, because they never contained the fact that if the ratio was ten to one in favor of the government, it still meant nothing, because the one man was willing to fight and die and the ten were not”.

To his credit, Secretary McNamara later changed his mind, but by then the U.S. was fully engaged in a tragic war that he had helped escalate. When McNamara voice his changed thinking to Lyndon Johnson and the President’s inner circle conducting the war, he was at first politely ignored, then isolated, and finally forced to resign. Johnson unfortunately insisted on pursuing his chosen course, even though it defied common sense.

Seldom do people consciously abandon common sense. It slips away almost unnoticed as the sly imposter takes center stage before an uncritical audience. The uncritical audience leading to Watergate was the Republican National Committee, and the sly imposter was G. Gordon Liddy. Originally employed by the Nixon reelection campaign to help with “intelligence: activities, Liddy developed and presented a $1 million plan that envisioned: breaking into and wiretapping the Democratic National Headquarters at Watergate; using a Florida yacht to entrap Democrat politicians with prostitutes; and deploying an electronic surveillance plane to snoop on the opposition. When party officials flatly rejected the plan as ridiculous, Liddy carried on undaunted, returning with a scaled down $500,000 version that eliminated the airplane but retained the prostitutes and the break-in. When this version also went down to defeat, Liddy returned with a so-called “modest” plan for $250,000 that involved only break-ins. What followed resulted in the first resignation in American history of a sitting U.S. President, a fiasco that common sense could easily have prevented.

Every person, regardless of IQ education, or occupation, can fall prey to the sly imposter, especially when passion for results overwhelms reason. Robert McNamara wanted passionately to prevail in Vietnam; the Republican National Committee felt the same way about Richard Nixon’s reelection. Sharp-minded thinkers make sure common sense overrides emotion. In the end, when people belatedly ask, “Why didn’t I catch that?” they’ve usually abandoned the sort of logic people gain from ordinary experience and replaced it with unreliable emotions.

When I first took the bench as a judge, my more experienced colleagues told me again and again to use the “smell test”. By that they meant a decision might seem right and still not be right. All our specialized training does not make us better judges if we do not test our decisions with common sense.

As a lawyer I first learned the value of the “smell test” when I visited one of my client’s-tuna canning plants. As large, gutted fish were removed from cold storage and placed on a conveyor belt headed to the processing facility, a worker leaned down and briefly smelled the inside of the fishes’ body cavities. Every now and then he removed a carcass from the line and tossed it away because it did not pass this simple test which relied on the ordinary human nose’s ability to detect rotten meat more accurately than any machine. Likewise, my senior judicial colleagues wanted me to understand that a similar smell test remains the fail-safe mechanism that most reliably protects wise judges from issuing ill-conceived decisions that leave them belatedly wondering, “Why didn’t I catch that?”

Sharp thinkers, like wise judges, test their thinking to make sure it makes sense, and the testing involves more than just paying lip service to the worn-out statement “I’ll think about it”. Thoughtful judges, for example, often commit their decisions to writing. A decision that “won’t write,” as judges say, probably requires significant rethinking. What seems logical in the mind sometimes makes no sense on paper. Illogical thinking produces awkward sentences and tangled paragraphs. Writing aids sensible thinking. The mind often works best in close cooperation with the hand’s unique ability to organize and express thoughts. Albert Einstein once said that people could spot him in any crowd by fact he always carried a pen and paper in hand. Einstein’s ever-present writing materials assisted in the discovery of secrets of the Universe that even today appear counter-intuitive and illogical, but which make perfect sense when committed to paper and examined, such as E = MC². The great English thinker John Stewart Mill put it this way: “If you want to know whether you are thing rightly, put your thoughts into words”. If not in writing, then at least vocalize them to a trusted friend or colleague.

You can thoroughly test whether or not common sense supports your own thinking by asking pointed questions during the process, such as:

• Is this plausible?
• Is it consistent?
• Is it credible?
• Is it realistic?
• How will this stand up to reasoned scrutiny?

I test the sensibility of others’ thinking by asking these sorts of questions:

• What did you do to test the validity of your reasoning?
• What other logical approaches did you explore?
• What assumptions and inferences did you make to reach this conclusion?
• On what facts do you base your opinions?
• What are the weaknesses of this line of reasoning?
• Give me the best arguments against this conclusion?

By Charles W. Mc Coy, Jr.  author of the book : "Why didn't I think of That?"

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