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February 17, 2008 / lazybug

Conventional Wisdom

FreakonomicsThere’s a wonderful description of the term Conventional Wisdom in the book I am reading currently, Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. (Yeah, I know, I have not finished reading Freedom at Midnight yet, from which I quoted a post ago. But that’s the way I read…it all started with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery which i left midway after reading around 200 pages. Meanwhile I managed to finish around three book, if I remember right.) Anyway, here’s the quote:

It was John Kenneth Galbraith, the hyperliterate economic sage, who coined the hrase “conventional wisdom.” He did not consider it a compliment. “We associate truth with convenience,” he wrote, “with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.” Economic and social behavior, Galbraith continued, “are complex, and to comprehend their character is mentally tiring.
Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.”

He then goes on to give a wonderful example of how the media can be used to create Conventional Wisdom. I have no doubt that most of today’s ‘wisdom’ can trace its roots to what is seen and read in today’s various media.

Advertising too is a brilliant tool for creating conventional wisdom. Listerine, for instance, was invented in the nineteenth century as a powerful surgical antiseptic. It was later sold, in distilled form, as a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. But it wasn’t a runaway success until the 1920s, when it was pitched as a solution for “chronic halitosis”-a then obscure medical term for bad breath. Listerine’s new ads featured forlorn young women and men, eager for marriage but turned off by their mate’s rotten breath. “Can I be happy with him in spite of that?” one maiden asked herself. Until that time, bad breath was not onventionally considered such a catastrophe. But Listerine changed that. As the advertising scholar James B. Twitchell writes, “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis.” In just seven years, the company’s revenues rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million.

And this one too is so true:

Women’s rights advocates, for instance, have hyped the incidence of sexual assault, claiming that one in three American women will in their lifetime be a victim of rape or attempted rape. (The actual figure is more like one in eight-but the advocates know it would take a callous person to publicly dispute their claims.) Advocates working for the cures of various tragic diseases regularly do the same. Why not? A little creative lying can draw attention, indignation, and—perhaps most important—the money and political capital to address the actual problem.

Now, isn’t this eerily similar to what we see and hear in TV channels and read in today’s Newspapers? Day in and day out so much of conventional wisdom is thrusted on to us that we more or less believe everything we see / hear / read without questioning it. We thereby take the risk of making a wrong opinion and perhaps taking a wrong decision. So what to do? Well, one line from Arthur Hailey‘s The Money Changers, which I read more than 5 years ago, comes to my mind: “…look beyond the obvious”. Or, as Levitt and Dubner add later in the book, “The answer lies in finding the right data, and the secret to finding the right data usually means finding the right person—more easily said than done.” Yes it is.

Further reading: Steven Levitt’s Blog

Image courtesy: Jeremy Latham



Leave a Comment
  1. Liju Philip / Feb 18 2008 2:27 am

    Haiz… finished the book long time ago, but no time to review it. Also, i have given the book to my friend now. Quite a good read.

    But the last chapter with all the stats and the info about how kids are named in the US put me off a bit. Overall, its a good read.

  2. lazybug / Feb 18 2008 7:09 am

    I am reading the electronic version of the book 😉

  3. Arfi / Feb 24 2008 10:11 pm

    Hey, got here via flickr

    surely an interesting book but related to his work on abortion and crime I see this,

    … Levitt’s theory has been claimed by former Secretary of Education William Bennett as the inspiration for his controversial – and widely denounced – statement that “if you wanted to reduce crime — if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”

    … and I shudder. Though Levitt has denied racial implications for his theory but I am not sure what Levitt’s views on race are.

  4. lazybug / Feb 25 2008 6:53 am

    Hi Arfi,

    It’s difficult to interpret his findings as being racist simply because it’s the numbers that do the talking.

    BTW, what’s your id on flickr?

  5. arfee / Feb 25 2008 8:19 am

    Of course, I didnt mean to imply that one should shy away from debating certain issues, just because they make us uncomfortable; even the highly controversial, race and intelligence/IQ question, for instance.

    But for someone who makes such claims in the public sphere (reduction in crime due to abortion), I think he should be more forthright with his views on the possible implications of his theory.

    this is where I am at flickr 🙂

    N O I R
  6. lazybug / Feb 25 2008 9:06 am

    I understand what you are saying…I vaguely remember him saying something on these lines at the beginning of the book. I am sure he would have been aware of the possible implications…may be it’s just a matter how an author decides to go about his job. Not sure about the publisher’s role in this though.


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