Book: Everything Is Obvious*

Tonight’s book was Everything Is Obvious* which was cleverly subtitled *Once You Know The Answer with a special bonus subtitle How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan Watts. And yes – for those of you keeping track at home, I didn’t read a book last night; I was working on mine instead.

I enjoyed this book. As I was reading it, I kept coming up with alternate titles like Everything is Bullshit, The Macro is Irrelevant, Humans Don’t Reason Well, Common Sense Fucks Us Up, Predictions are Useless, and Attributing Things To Abstract Collections of Stuff Like Crowds, Markets, Companies, etc. is Stupid.

Watts is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research. For those of you who think social science is garbage, he’s also a real scientist with a PhD in theoretical and applied mechanics. Basically, he’s a smart, well educated dude who has strong reasoning skills and is an excellent writer.

This book reinforced several deeply held beliefs that I have:

  • The macro doesn’t matter in the long run.
  • Predictions are irrelevant.
  • Most people don’t understand what they are doing or why they are doing it.
  • Anything can be explained in hindsight, and the explanation is often wrong.
  • The media introduces massive bias into most phenomenon so ignore the media if you really want to understand something.
  • Trying things, measuring everything, and iterating aggressively is the best way to figure out what works.

There are probably others. Watts beautifully takes apart a bunch of stories that are viewed as either “common sense”, “conventional wisdom”, or “counter-intuitive truths.” It’s a beautiful thing to read him dissect the popularity of the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare in the same book that he explains why some of the nonsensical assertions of Malcolm Gladwell that are repeated as gospel (including the hilariously stupid Paul Revere / William Dawes analysis), followed by an explanation of the faulty reasoning around the spread of SARS.

The second half of the book is where the good stuff is. Part 1 is “Common Sense” and sets the stage by explaining how as humans we regularly misinterpret what’s going on for a variety of reasons, including our belief about what common sense is and how it works. Part 2 is “Uncommon Sense” and for those of you searching for tools on how to deal with the world more effectively, there is plenty of chocolately goodness here.

I have no idea how much of Watts analysis is actually correct, but his assertions about what blinds us, causes us to make crummy decisions, and results in us believing things we can’t possibly understand sang to me.

  • You have given me a new acronym – CSFUU, love it.
    This goes well with a book I am currently reading from the Marketing Science Institute, “Consumer Insights: Findings from Behavioral Research”  As I read about why consumers act the way the do, I can’t help but exclaim, “we are stupid.  Oh look, we are lazy as well as stupid.”  Yet, understanding how customers act (even if we can’t explain why) is certainly useful in business.

  • Anonymous

    You’re working on a new book? What’s the subject and when will it be available?

    • I wrote about it yesterday on the blog. It’s titled Startup Communities.

  • WalterBob

    I loved this book! I wish he would write a version for 6th graders so the kids to learn early in life not to be fooled by bullshit. 

    • Sounds like a perfect kid book.

      • Walter


        When you meet Duncan tell him I would be the first to buy the book should he write it. Kids in this country could use it.


        Happy New Year!

  • You really should read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Brilliant summary of 30 years of Nobel-prize winning research into not just how we misjudge situations and make bad decisions, but how our decision-making apparatus works.

    • Amazon one-clicking it now. Thx for the recommendation.

  • Brad:  Duncan is a very cool guy.  Happy to intro you guys if you haven’t met him.  He’s always to crush Gladwell.  Finds him to be super breezy.  

    • Neat – sure – connect us by email. We share the same view on Gladwell (I won’t read him anymore.)

  • DaveJ

    What specifically about “Predictions are irrelevant” resonates for you?  To invest, you have to make some kind of a prediction – that an entrepreneur will work hard and smart, or that a market area will be big, etc. Looking at it philosophically, making predictions is precisely what knowledge is for, and it’s how we survive.  I need to slow down or I’ll hit that car in front of me; the weather will get warmer in the summer so I can plant crops in the spring; if I don’t make this software scalable it will crash when I get too many users.  So, in this sense they are not irrelevant, they are everything. So… are you and/or the author talking about *macro* predictions?  It seems like that’s an important distinction.

    • Correct – macro predictions. Two categories – the “here’s what is going to happen in the world next year” and “here’s what that activity predicts.” Wrong, or if correct, randomly so, except in hindsight.

  • I haven’t read the book, but the ideas you’ve summarized remind me of this article by an evolutionary biologist that basically argues we’re not as smart or innovative as we think we are. He calls it, “infinite stupidity” – – We’re all too happy to let everyone else decide things for us.Very few people actually “try things” for themselves leading to not a lot of true innovation.

  • that is an amazing post! i really liked it! you are great!!

  • Anonymous

    Your hunch is correct about about predictions, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Data analysis is misused and abused.  The gatekeepers and now the those that rely on data too often  point to nonsignificant findings as evidence of the lack of contribution.   Thus, results are often biased in favor of statistically significant results ( based on its  p values).  Better research methods by those of us looking for answers and better understanding by those of us that apply the results should be a part of everyone’s todo list involved in the space of estimating tomorrow. 


    • Valid – I should have been clearer since I was thinking about qualitative predictions, especially all of the “what is going to happen in 2012 lists” that are starting to come up.

      Deep data analysis is useful. But a lot of it, like most economic analysis and econometrics, are total shit because they assume linear rather than geometric, discontinuous, or chaotic trajectories. 

  • I forget who said this, but it seems to apply here “For every historical fact there is an explanation that is clear, simple, elegant, and wrong.”

  • Anonymous

    Brad, don’t know if you ever got a chance to read Deep Survival.  add it to your list.  Premise when the sh… really hits the fan, brains work differently (and that isn’t always a good thing).

    • I’ve haven’t read it yet. Just added it to my Kindle.

      • Anonymous

        let me know what you think,  a bit wordy at times, but the basic thesis is interesting and i often think their are some interesting connections to the start up world.  

  • I have not made it very far through the book yet but from your comments and a friend who has read it, it seems very relevant to social media today.  Many people think they know how social works but it seems that we are in the stage you reference above – “Most people don’t understand what they are doing or why they are doing it”.  As Watts referred to in his talk at Defrag – we need more social science and less engineering.  Social is not about links and static connections.

    Science being the key missing part for Gladwell.  It is awesome that he picks him apart.  My cofounder gets so fired up about Gladwell.  In an interview for the Portland Seed Fund one of the interviewers asked us what we thought about Gladwell and I knew she was going to get an earful.  It is amazing because it is how most people think of things like influence.  

    Thanks for your thoughts on the book.

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