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.