What’s the difference between conventional wisdom and fact? Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.
Conventional Wisdom Defined
Conventional wisdom is defined as a generally accepted theory or belief; an accepted truth that is undisputed. It’s sometimes called commonplace knowledge.
Conventional wisdom helps us to see patterns and make decisions based on information coming from the environment. However, it can diminish creativity, dampen outside the box thinking, and cause us to ignore gut instincts.
In his 1958 book The Affluent Society. John Kenneth Galbraith referenced the term conventional wisdom and argued that conventional wisdom often interfered with the adoption of new ideas.
Why would conventional wisdom interfere with adoption of new ideas? People accept conventional wisdom and use it to make many decisions in everyday life. Often this results in doing what everyone else is doing and thinking within societal rules and expectations. Change is difficult.
Is Conventional Wisdom the Truth?
Conventional wisdom is not always accurate — nor is it necessarily true. Just because most people accept something as truth, does that make it true? Most conventional wisdom is true — in some circumstances and in certain times. Most of us accept certain ‘truths’ but how often do we take the time to verify or question assumptions?
Two health-related examples come to mind:
The first relates to smoking which was not deemed harmful even by medical people until the mid-sixties. Today I’m appalled to remember when, as a newly graduated child and family therapist, I smoked through client sessions as did most of the adults attending. I did not need to consult my wristwatch (remember those?) because I knew that one hour had passed when there were three butts in the ashtray beside my chair. I also remember my non-smoking mother sending, along with her weekly handwritten letters, clippings of early newspaper articles linking smoking with lung cancer and admonishing me to protect my health. She had facts backed by research; I had conventional wisdom of the doctors, nurses, and other therapists who were my peers at the child mental health clinic.
The second example relates to the conventional wisdom about the use of asbestos for its excellent fireproofing and insulating qualities. Asbestos was mined and used extensively in buildings and manufacturing until the discovery of its cancer-causing properties. Pulmonary disease and mesothelioma were documented in workers using asbestos and mining it. Research brought new information to refute conventional wisdom. It led to banning the use of asbestos in most European and North American countries.
We might also consider how conventional wisdom plays a role in making financial decisions. We’ve all heard the advice to pay yourself first! Yes, that’s true, but one must also consider interest costs if there are huge amounts of debt that need a repayment. Or, the admonition that investing in the stock market is too risky. Yes, money is safer in guaranteed certificates, bonds or savings accounts where there is little risk to capital. This advice may apply in the short-term, but what happens to returns in the long-term?
Until recently, conventional wisdom influenced thinking about climate change and global warming. Early warnings from scientists were dismissed. Nobody cared about melting ice-caps, shrinking populations of polar bears, rising sea levels, or endangered habitats for penguins. People ignored admonitions about increased risk as the earth warmed. Only recently have the effects of climate change become real as more severe storms, droughts, and wildfires, have threatened lifestyles. More people now understand the health-related risks if freshwater for safe consumption is not available or if severe weather threatens food supplies.
Conventional Wisdom and Facts about Growing Older
Conventional wisdom promotes negative views about ageing. Youth through to middle age is perceived as a time of learning and growth. After that, the conventional wisdom is that people decline in terms of physical strength, appearance, and health. Stereotypes and prejudice often judge older people as crotchety and miserable. Cognitive decline is considered inevitable. If ageing means decline, do older people become a burden? Does this mean that older people deteriorate? Do we stop learning?
The truth is that life gets better as we grow older. This statement does not ignore the health challenges that can affect both physical and mental health. But, decline is not inevitable.
Let’s remember that ageing brings wisdom. Ageing also brings growth. In elder years we discover our true selves in ways not possible when lives were cluttered with career challenges, mortgage payments, and child-rearing responsibilities. There are new insights often accompanied by a renewed sense of purpose. Life is enjoyable and satisfying.
People don’t change their thinking easily. For too long, conventional wisdom has associated ageing with decline. Yes, the mirror tells a story of subtle physical changes — but, what about the small rewards that come simultaneously? There’s promise in the future just as there was before we hit our 60s and 70s and 80s. Priorities shift and we adapt to ensure that life remains fruitful and satisfying.
I’ll close with a great quote from Helen Mirren about the conventional wisdom of growing older. She said, “Your 40s are good. Your 50s are great. Your 60s are fab. And 70 is f*@king awesome!” I’ll take Mirren’s quote as fact over the conventional wisdom!
Thanks for reading my post. I’m interested in your comments about how conventional wisdom influences your life and your world view.