Conventional wisdom is the body of ideas or explanations generally accepted as true by the public or by experts in a field. Such ideas or explanations, though widely held, are unexamined. Unqualified societal discourse preserves the status quo.
Origin of the term
It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom.
The term in actuality is much older and dates at least to 1838.
Conventional wisdom was used in a number of other works prior to Galbraith, occasionally in a positive or neutral sense, but more often pejoratively. However, previous authors used it as a synonym for 'commonplace knowledge'. Galbraith specifically prepended 'The' to the phrase to emphasize its uniqueness, and sharpened its meaning to narrow it to those commonplace beliefs that are also acceptable and comfortable to society, thus enhancing their ability to resist facts that might diminish them. He repeatedly referred to it throughout the text of The Affluent Society, invoking it to explain the high degree of resistance in academic economics to new ideas. For these reasons, he is usually credited with the invention & popularization of the phrase in modern usage.
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Conventional wisdom is not necessarily true. Conventional wisdom is additionally often seen as an obstacle to the acceptance of newly acquired information, to introducing new theories and explanations, and therefore operates as an obstacle that must be overcome by legitimate revisionism. This is to say, that despite new information to the contrary, conventional wisdom has a property analogous to inertia that opposes the introduction of contrary belief, sometimes to the point of absurd denial of the new information set by persons strongly holding an outdated (conventional) view. This inertia is due to conventional wisdom being made of ideas that are convenient, appealing and deeply assumed by the public, who hangs on to them even as they grow outdated. The unavoidable outcome is these ideas will eventually not match reality at all, so conventional wisdom will be violently shaken until it doesn't conflict reality so blatantly.
The concept of conventional wisdom also is applied or implied in political senses, often related closely with the phenomenon of talking points. It is used pejoratively to refer to the idea that statements which are repeated over and over become conventional wisdom regardless of whether or not they are true.
In a more general sense, it is used to refer to the accepted truth about something which nearly no one would argue about, and so is used as a gauge (or well-spring) of normative behavior or belief, even within a professional context. One such example was conventional wisdom in 1950, even among most doctors, was that smoking was not particularly harmful to one's health. Conventional wisdom in 2011: it is. Another: It might be used in this manner discussing a technical matter such as the conventional wisdom was that a man would suffer fatal injuries if he experienced more than eighteen g-forces in an aerospace vehicle. (John Stapp shattered that myth by repeatedly withstanding far more in his research—peaking above 46 Gs).
Conventional wisdom may itself be the subject of legends. For example, it is widely believed that conventional wisdom prior to Christopher Columbus held that the world was flat, when in actuality scholars had long accepted that the earth is a sphere.
However, if enough people read and believe this fact, the above sentence will eventually become "conventional wisdom". Ironically however it would likewise become false, because it would no longer be true that this belief about the conventional wisdom of an earlier era was widespread.
Integration with scientific evidence
Evidence-based medicine is a deliberate effort to acknowledge expert opinion (conventional wisdom) and how it coexists with scientific data. Evidence-based medicine acknowledges that expert opinion is "evidence" and plays a role to fill the "gap between the kind of knowledge generated by clinical research studies and the kind of knowledge necessary to make the best decision for individual patients."
When conventional wisdom is overthrown, outranked, or outflanked by new ideas, and the new conventional wisdom becomes established in place of the previous one, there may yet be considerable remaining affiliation to the previous regime.
- Paradigm shift
- Argumentum ad populum
- Boiling frog
- Common sense
- Consensus reality
- Dominant ideology
- Social constructionism
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- E.g., Mark Leibovich, "A Scorecard on Conventional Wisdom", N.Y. Times (March 9, 2008).
- John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958), chapter 2.
- Warner, Henry Whiting (presumed author is Theodore Frelinghuysen) (1838). An inquiry into the moral and religious character of the American government. New York: Wiley and Putnam. p. 35. "it will be seen that we appeal in such a case, neither to the records of legislation, nor yet to the conventional wisdom of our forefathers"
- E.g., 1 Nahum Capen, The History of Democracy (1874), page 477 ("millions of all classes alike are equally interested and protected by the practical judgment and conventional wisdom of ages").
- E.g., "Shallow Theorists", American Educational Monthly 383 (Oct. 1866) ("What is the result? Just what conventional wisdom assumes it would be.").
- E.g., Joseph Warren Beach, The Technique of Thomas Hardy (1922), page 152 ("He has not the colorless monotony of the business man who follows sure ways to success, who has conformed to every rule of conventional wisdom, and made himself as featureless as a potato field, as tame as an extinct volcano."); "Meditations", The Life (May 1905), page 224 ("in the end he fulfilled the promise of the Lord, and proved that conventional wisdom is short-sighted, narrow, and untrustworthy").
- Tonelli, Mark R (January 2011). "Integrating Clinical Research Into Clinical Decision Making". Annali dell'Istituto Superiore di Sanità 47 (1): 26–30. Retrieved 30 December 2011.