Saturday, October 15, 2011

The death of common sense

Back in LUMS, I took a subject called Quantitative Methods (don’t worry, this blog is not about maths !). It was taken by a professor by the name of Don Wallace. I remember the first class in which Don came in, and without much introduction wrote out a problem on the board and invited the class to solve it with him.

It was a simple business situation with an intuitive answer, but since this was a quants class, we started solving it mathematically. The class played along and after a number of mathematical steps we reached what appeared to be a very neat solution.

Except that it made no sense.

So I raised my hand I remember and said so. “I don’t know how we’ve reached here, but this solution on the board makes no business sense – it’s just wrong”. That’s when Don tipped his hand. He turned around dramatically and asked the class:

“How did we reach at this absurd conclusion ?”

The effect was dramatic. Everyone had been following the maths, the numbers, the steps, which all seemed logical, but somewhere along the way we’d lost track of the original problem, forgotten that we were trying to solve a real world issue. Obviously, we’d made an incorrect assumption somewhere along the way, or applied a perfectly good method to a problem which could not be solved with it.

In other words, we’d left common sense at the door.

“Method and Judgment” were what we needed, thundered Don Wallace. And he was absolutely right. Having a sophisticated method, or a complex algorithm, or a really neat argument should not distract us from applying method and judgment to our solutions. Common sense is our guardian angel.

Looking around the world today, I’m just saddened by the death of common sense:

Look at the financial meltdown. All the bankers had sophisticated models and the best of training. But somewhere along the way, didn’t someone say: “hold on, this makes no sense – there can’t be that much value in those mortgages, surely we’ve stretched it too far”. Really ??

Look at the US foreign policy of recent years where everything is solvable by a sufficient application of the war machinery. There are no political solutions ! Really ?!

Look at the Pakistani people bouncing from one disaster to the next and constantly blaming everyone but themselves. It’s not our fault ! Really ?!

Look at the Europeans all angry and upset by what happened to their pensions and saving. They didn’t see that coming with a 35-hour work week and cradle-to-grave social security ? Really ?

What’s wrong with all of us ? we’re smarter than this surely; what happened to common sense ?


  1. Tussi great ho Farid jee. Excellent article. I am recommending it to others. Good show. Nauman Khawaja

  2. Glad you liked it Nauman !