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Conventional wisdom? 传统智慧

中国日报网 2022-07-12 15:25


Reader question:

Please explain this sentence, “conventional wisdom” in particular: According to conventional wisdom, old dogs won’t learn new tricks.

My comments:

There’s an adage or proverb that states: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

And “old dogs” here refer not to men’s four-legged companions but men themselves.

Old men are set in their ways and you can’t put new ideas into them. They’re stuck in the rut, so to speak. They refuse to learn anything new. Often times, they think they already know everything.

And I mean everything.

That’s their problem. And that’s why you can’t teach them anything.

Hence, in our example, conventional wisdom has it that you can’t teach your old pet dogs new tricks (skills).

Or figuratively, you can’t teach old people anything new (because they think they already know it).

Oh, conventional wisdom.

Literally that means common knowledge gained from everyday experience.

Conventional refers to what’s traditional, usual commonplace and ordinary. Knives and rifles, for example, are considered conventional weapons. Nuclear warheads, on the other hand, are unconventional ones.

Conventional wisdom is, therefore, synonymous with common sense or, as we Chinese say, common knowledge, things most people seem to know and accept as true.

What’s known as conventional wisdom is accepted as true, that is, but not necessarily true, not always true.

For example, in America, conventional wisdom has it that a sitting president gets more votes in the next election. In experience, former President Donald Trump lost his reelection campaign – to current President Joe Biden.

That shows Donald Trump isn’t as popular as a lot of supporters think he is.

Or, to the Trump crowd, conventional wisdom clearly has its limits.


Let’s move on to read a few media examples of conventional wisdom:

1. “What would happen if I did the opposite?”

A simple question, but one packed with complexity just below the surface. It’s not hard to do the opposite – you just do it. But of course it’s not that easy.

Doing the opposite – going against the grain, bucking conventional wisdom – can be scary. It can result in failure. It welcomes skepticism. It invites derision. It makes people uncomfortable.

It is also the indispensable action that is inextricably linked to virtually every breakthrough idea that has moved the needle of human progress.

Conventional wisdom is, by definition, a generally accepted theory or belief. Any action or idea that is contrary to conventional wisdom is, therefore, generally not accepted, and the person propounding it is considered wrongheaded and countercultural – that is, until the radical is proven right, and the new idea replaces the old. As Albert Einstein said: “The only sure way to never make mistakes is to have no new ideas.”

Paradoxically, many think that the time to take chances, buck the system and eschew conventional wisdom is when we are young – that as we age we must accept certain “realities” about life. But the exact opposite is true!

It is with time and experience that we become more aware, more attuned and (should) learn to think independently. It is when we are young that we are more susceptible to the conventions of wisdom. Most young people lack the real world experience and maturity to buck the status quo or, as Seth Godin likes to say, “make a ruckus.” This is in part due to the fact that the modern day educational environment prioritizes memorization and socialization (sit quietly, be obedient) over the need to think critically.

So it is left to the adults, who have seen the world, worked in it, and in many ways been frustrated by it, to change it. But it is not a challenge that most accept willingly. That’s because there is a sense of comfort in convention, but it is false. As Mark Twain said: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Sometimes you need to rock the boat. Indeed, anyone who thinks or acts contrary to conventional wisdom is considered crazy right up until the moment he or she proves it wrong.

- Beware the False Comfort of Conventional Wisdom, LifeAndWhim.com, May 24, 2016.

2. Washington’s conventional wisdom held in recent years that Americans wanted to “end endless wars” around the world, particularly in Afghanistan. Public-opinion polling repeatedly found at least plurality support for withdrawing U.S. forces from “our longest war,” seconded by Presidents Trump and Biden, among others.

It was hardly a subject of debate among media commentators and Washington insiders. Who could disagree, except a few irreconcilables? Democrats certainly didn’t question this received truth, nor did many Republicans, bending to Trump’s influence.

The conventional wisdom and its arguments were simple: Why did we invade 20 years ago, wasting lives and treasure? The Afghans should defend themselves. The Taliban has moderated, craving acceptance by “the international community.” The global terrorist threat has receded. Our obsession with the Middle East should end so we can “pivot” to Asia. Time to focus on “nation building” at home, and on climate change.

Then came the actual withdrawal. The swift collapse of the Afghan government and its national army, the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul and riveting scenes of death and terror amid frantic efforts to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who had worked with us for two decades were too stunning to ignore. Washington’s conventional wisdom encountered reality – and dissolved as quickly as the Afghan military.

But conventional wisdom is nothing if not resilient. It quickly concluded that while Americans overwhelming disapproved of how the withdrawal was executed, they nonetheless still concurred with Biden and Trump on the underlying withdrawal decision.

There is, however, strong reason to believe that conventional wisdom has stumbled again, as Americans begin to realize that withdrawal has more profound strategic consequences than simply removing U.S. troops.

Recent congressional hearings, with more coming, have informed the rethinking prompted by millions of television screens portraying our withdrawal’s fully predictable results. For starters, the Taliban provided ample evidence that it had neither modernized nor moderated, naming no women to its new government. Al Qaeda proved to be more numerous and more integrated into the Taliban than even the worst-case United Nations and other studies indicated. Terrorists across the Middle East took heart from the Taliban’s “victory,” and foreign jihadists began returning to Afghanistan. Reports of retaliation and barbarism by Taliban fighters emerged from the few Western journalists still in-country.

- We’ve left Afghanistan — but its consequences are just starting to arrive, TheHill.com, October 10, 2021.

3. According to conventional wisdom, inflation has left most Americans poorer. It’s an odd view, given that the number of people with jobs jumped by 4.7 percent in 2021, and the economy grew by 5.7 percent after inflation. It was the U.S. economy’s best performance in decades. If people are poorer, why did household spending jump by 8.8 percent in 2021, after inflation, including increases of 25.8 percent for clothing and shoes and 11.6 percent for home furnishings?

The reason the conventional wisdom doesn’t seem right is because it’s wrong: The incomes of most Americans, adjusted for inflation, increased in 2021. The government checks sent out in March 2021 and the soaring stock market helped. Wages and salaries also gained ground after inflation. And in a turnabout from the past several decades, the greatest gains in both incomes and wealth went to lower-income and less-educated Americans in 2021.

How can the current meme be so wrong? Many people’s views of inflation are colored by the big jump in prices in the fourth quarter of 2021, when they spiked at an annual rate of 6.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. But the annual rate for one quarter is roughly equivalent to one-fourth of the actual rate for the quarter, or 1.725 percent in the fourth quarter of 2021. Throughout the year, prices rose significantly but less dramatically—by 4.2 percent overall and 3.9 percent for the goods and services that people purchased.

Conventional wisdom-mongers such as GOP leaders and Trumpist commentators are eager to throw shade on an economic boom under a Democratic president and Congress. And many people who feel the sticker shock when they fill their gas tanks these days believe it too, especially since many nonpolitical media didn’t check the data before pushing the meme.

CNBC compared the annualized inflation rate for the single month of December to annual wage gains and concluded, wrongly, that “despite higher wages, inflation gave the average worker a 2.4% pay cut.” Even The New York Times claimed recently that “there’s almost no question that wages, in the aggregate, have risen less than inflation over the past year.” In the aggregate, as we will see, wages increased by 4.7 percent after inflation

Conventional wisdom that’s wrong can move people who don’t know the facts. A recent national survey by Navigator Research found that people’s positive views of the economy jumped from 27 percent to 44 percent when they were told the topline GDP and job growth numbers. Even among Republicans, those facts narrowed the gap between negative and positive views of the economy by 18 percentage points. And while most Americans’ views of the economy rely on what they’re told, they know their own economic conditions firsthand. According to Gallup, 59 percent of Americans say they’re better off or the same as a year ago, and 60 percent expect to be better off a year from now—but only 33 percent say they’re satisfied with the state of the economy.

So inflation is a fact—but the notion that it has overwhelmed incomes is not. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that after inflation, the disposable incomes of all Americans grew by $608 billion in 2021, or 2.1 percent; on a per capita basis, it increased by 1.7 percent, or $775 per American. The wages, salaries, and benefits that Americans earned last year increased even faster, rising by 4.1 percent after inflation; setting aside the benefits, wage and salary income jumped by 4.7 percent.

Granted, the disposable-income numbers include the government checks sent out last year. The wage and salary numbers include the additional earnings of 6.7 million people who found employment in 2021. So it is arithmetically possible that the inflation-adjusted earnings of most people could decline even as the overall measures increased. But that is not what happened.

- Conventional Wisdom is Wrong: Americans Are Better Off Even AFTER Inflation, Econvue.com, February 23, 2022.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣   编辑:丹妮)


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