Conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom is the body of ideas or explanations generally accepted as true by the public and/or by experts in a field.

Origin of the term

The term is often credited to the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who used it in his 1958 book The Affluent Society:[1]

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.[2]

However, the term dates back to at least 1838.[3][n 1] Conventional wisdom was used in a number of other works prior to Galbraith, occasionally in a positive[4] or neutral[5] sense, but more often pejoratively.[6] 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.


Conventional wisdom is not necessarily true. It 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of contrary belief, sometimes to the point of absurd denial of the new information set by persons strongly holding an outdated (conventional) view.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made of ideas that are convenient, appealing and deeply assumed by the public, which hangs on to them even as they grow outdated. This inertia can last even after the paradigm has shifted between competing conventional idea sets.

The concept of conventional wisdom may also be applied or implied in a political sense, being closely related to 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).

Sometimes, people in society form conventional ideas about what other people in the past considered to be conventional wisdom. For example, take the following sentence: "It is widely believed that prior to Christopher Columbus people thought the world was flat, but in actuality, scholars of that time had long accepted that the earth is a sphere."

The above sentence is true; people today often think that Columbus discovered the world to be round, when in fact the world's roundness was already widely known by Columbus' time. However, if enough people read and believe the above sentence, the above sentence will eventually supplant the old belief (the old belief in past belief in a flat earth). The above sentence would become the new conventional wisdom. (Ironically, however, this would also turn the above sentence, the new conventional wisdom, into a false claim; because the new conventional wisdom would propose that people are confused about past beliefs in a way that they actually wouldn't be.)

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."[7]

See also


  1. "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."—(presumably) T. Frelinghuysen


Look up conventional wisdom in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  1. E.g., Mark Leibovich, "A Scorecard on Conventional Wisdom", N.Y. Times (March 9, 2008).
  2. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958), chapter 2.
  3. 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.
  4. 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").
  5. E.g., "Shallow Theorists", American Educational Monthly 383 (Oct. 1866) ("What is the result? Just what conventional wisdom assumes it would be.").
  6. 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").
  7. Tonelli, Mark R (January 2011). "Integrating Clinical Research Into Clinical Decision Making" (PDF). Annali dell'Istituto Superiore di Sanità. 47 (1): 26–30. Retrieved 30 December 2011.
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