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Is Common Knowledge Always True?

Updated on July 12, 2012

The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.

Socrates (469 - 399 BC)

Bananas?

A rhesus monkey contemplates Common Knowledge.
A rhesus monkey contemplates Common Knowledge. | Source

Understanding Common Knowledge

Common knowledge are beliefs that may or may not be facts. Common knowledge can be opinions that a great majority of people hold in a society or culture. Common knowledge can vary between cultures and societies depending on the type of knowledge.

An example of a common or group knowledge is the study conducted by GR Stephenson on rhesus monkeys. A number of monkeys were placed in a room with bananas hung from the ceiling and a ladder placed below it. Any time a monkey spotted the bananas and went up the ladder to get them, the scientist would spray all the monkeys with cold water. After all the monkeys had attempted and failed to retrieve the bananas, a new, inexperienced monkey was put into the mix, replacing one of the others. When the naive monkey went to get the bananas, the other monkeys pulled him down and beat him up - even though no water had been sprayed. Over the course of the experiment, all the old monkeys who had experienced being sprayed with the water were replaced with new monkeys. And each time the monkeys would pull down and beat up the new monkey going after the bananas, even though the monkeys were not being sprayed with water! This is an example of common knowledge not being true. It was no longer true that climbing the ladder would get a cold-water spraying, and yet the monkeys behaved as if it were true. The common knowledge for the monkeys was that climbing the ladder was somehow bad enough to make everyone beat up the offender yet there was no longer any truth behind the common knowledge.1

While it may be easy for us to pass judgment on these poor and abused monkeys, this study does illustrates how common knowledge can spread. Things do not necessarily have to be true to become widely known. They just have to be believed and acted on. By acting on their beliefs, people and monkeys reinforce the common knowledge. But that does not mean they are even aware of the real truth or fallicy of that common knowledge.

Earth Evidence

Yup.  It's round.
Yup. It's round. | Source

Evaluating Common Knowledge

How do we know whether or not a certain common knowledge topic is true? We can know whether or not common knowledge is true by evaluating its conditions and theories regarding the topic for evidence that either supports or discounts the idea, topic, or belief.

Common knowledge can thus change over time. An example of this would be the belief that the world is flat that was common knowledge centuries ago. Now it is scientifically proven that we live on a round globe. We have even seen pictures of our sphere-shaped home from outer space. But a long time ago, the evidence seemed to suggest that the world was flat because that is how it looked to everyone. Once the theory that a person could fall off the end of the flat world was finally tested, that old theory was put to rest.

Another example also comes from the planets. Centuries ago, people believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. It was not accepted that the Earth could be traveling around the sun. It was not until the past century in 1992, that the Church finally apologized to Galileo Galilei, publicly acknowledging that the Earth was not the center of the universe. (It was in 1822 that the Church finally lifted the ban on his books which discussed the Copernican system.) By the time the apology came, it felt silly, because by then everyone knew the truth and it had become common knowledge that the Earth orbits the sun.2

The reason Galileo Galilei was able to get to the truth about the orbits of the planets was because he used real science and observation to find evidence for or against the different theories. He did not just go along with the swing of public or common knowledge.

Truth is a Light

Truth lights the way out of darkness and ignorance.
Truth lights the way out of darkness and ignorance. | Source

The Power of Placing High Value on Truth and Evidence

By placing value on truth and evidence, it is possible to get to the bottom of many different topics that are common knowledge. In order to do this though you must trust the evidence over the public opinion or theory, and study where the evidence leads. This can be difficult as we all have biases that have developed over our lifetime, and it is often easier to ignore, refute, or block the evidence than to accept it. This is what happened during Galileo's time. The Church could have welcomed scientific observation and experimentation and replicated Galileo's own findings, but they chose not to because the evidence did not support their Earth-centric worldview.

By using the scientific method science has advanced to such an extent that humans have been able to build airplanes, fly to the moon, and develop computers and micro-chip technologies. It is truly remarkable to think of what we have achieved.

But despite our great achievements, there is still a lot we can learn by evaluating what is commonly known for evidence of its validity.

Nazi propaganda.
Nazi propaganda. | Source

Examining Beliefs in Common Knowledge

By examining cultural and societal beliefs and biases, we can separate out myth from truth in the arena of common knowledge. In order to recognize propaganda from true statements, we must examine it with awareness of our own individual perspective and evaluate it in an objective manner, letting go of biases and prejudices so that we are open to what the evidence really shows. Sometimes it is necessary to dig deeper for the real evidence and to understand the motives behind those who might be hiding the truth.

History has plenty of cases when dangerous prejudice became the status quo and during these times what became common knowledge to certain groups was a lot of prejudicial nonsense. What beliefs about blacks became common knowledge to too many whites during the time of slavery in America? What beliefs about Jews held sway in Nazi Germany? What about the Japanese atrocities during the rape of Nanking, what was just common knowledge to the Japanese soldiers that made them feel justified in their cruelty to the Chinese?

These are only a few examples; almost any country and culture at one time has been guilty of holding dangerous prejudiced beliefs that become common knowledge to them, something the average person in that society not only takes to be true but may value enough to even promote, often because the prejudice benefits them in some way (as with slavery) or feeds feelings of (what they feel is a righteous) hate.

Along with prejudice, ignorant assumptions can become common knowledge and be very harmful. Just decades ago it was common knowledge that smoking cigarettes or cigars was harmless. Is that really what the evidence showed at the time? Of course not! We all know this. But even so there were scientists who said otherwise, lending credence to the common knowledge that cigarettes weren't dangerous and some doctors would even prescribe smoking to their unfortunate patients to help them relax. While this seems incredibly crazy now, it does show the power of common knowledge.

Socrates
Socrates | Source

Find the Truth and Stand Up for It

The more people live with eyes wide open the more safe the world will become. In every society, all through time, there are people who dig out the truth. Such people can be remembered centuries later with honor. They are often unpopular, and in some cases so much so that their life is in danger. The ones who stand up for the truth have led the way for countless others.

When more people look for and stand up for truth, examining common knowledge for the errors that may be there, we will live more peaceful and successful lives, doing less harm to others and increasing the level of truth in common knowledge.

References

1. EDIT: Please see Comments section regarding this study.

The rhesus monkey experiment can be referenced here:

Sources:
Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

Mentioned in: Galef, B. G., Jr. (1976). Social Transmission of Acquired Behavior: A Discussion of Tradition and Social Learning in Vertebrates. In: Rosenblatt, J.S., Hinde, R.A., Shaw, E. and Beer, C. (eds.), Advances in the study of behavior, Vol. 6, New York: Academic Press, pp. 87-88.

2. The church apologizes to Galileo in 1992.

Comments on Is Common Knowledge Always True?

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    • carozy profile imageAUTHOR

      carozy 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks for the link and helping to correct common knowledge!

    • profile image

      tob 

      6 years ago

      The spread of this myth is almost self-referential. You can read the original article here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/73492989/Stephenson-1966...

    • carozy profile imageAUTHOR

      carozy 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Whoops. I thought the article I linked to was about rhesus monkeys experiment, since it seems to cite that study. I've never heard of the self-help book but may check it out. Interesting if it is fabricated. Thanks for clarifying.

    • profile image

      tob 

      6 years ago

      Also, there seem to be common knowledge on the internet that the ape experiments with the bananas happened as is described here. However, the reference refers to a completely different experiment which is to do with rhesus monkeys. The one you refer to is actually fabricated in a self-help book, "Competing for the future" by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad (1996).

    • carozy profile imageAUTHOR

      carozy 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks for stopping by with your comments. Billybuc, I'm glad you've been able to have some influence on students to learn to look for evidence and proof. And Doc Sonic, that has happened to me more than once too!

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 

      6 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      It's amazing what some people consider to be "proof". I recently had someone say that they absolutely knew a specific item was true, because it was "all over the internet". What can you do in a case like that?

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I don't know how many times I have had students tell me something and then follow it by "everybody knows that" or "it's just common knowledge." I would always tell them to bring me documented facts and not common knowledge.

      Great hub with an important message.

    • carozy profile imageAUTHOR

      carozy 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      I agree with that. Thank you for stopping by.

    • carriethomson profile image

      carriethomson 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Truth is really a light and one should implement in life....truth should not be ignored as it is a ray of light and hope even a person who is true is at ease and find no guilt in life no matters sometimes his life in danger........anyways keep saying truth

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