There’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