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Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the…

Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer (2011)

by Duncan J. Watts

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This intelligent book articulates very clearly why knowing something about past or present social affairs can be extremely difficult, and often even impossible. For people who are used to accept simple common sense answers to complex questions, this book should be a useful antidote and a wakeup call to scepticism. And the author's investigations of the possibilities of scientific sociology are bound to be educational even for more seasoned practitioners of critical thought. The copious references to the well-slected biography also provide ample material for further study.

The author caters for a broad audience by discussing and criticizing examples put forth by popular mass-market authors such as a Gladwell or Taleb. This is fine for the most part, but some of the examples already feel a bit dated even though it's only been seven years since the book was published. A slightly more theoretical approach with more generic examples could have greatly extended the lifetime of the main argument, even though it may have reduced sales in the short term. I also think the book was just a little bit too long. The two chapters before the final concluding chapter could in my opinion just as well have been excluded.

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all readers. It can almost be guaranteed that you overestimate how much you know about the social world. This book might not quite be the red pill which shows you how deep the rabbit hole goes, but it will at least plant seeds of doubt.
  thcson | Nov 14, 2018 |
Very good popular science account of how one should go about thinking about and doing research on social phenomena. ( )
  ajungherr | Mar 15, 2018 |
The anti-Gladwell explains that not only is everything obvious, but so is its opposite. Thus obviousness isn't enough to understand the truth. This is an important insight and yet maybe not enough for a whole book. At the same time, who would buy a half book? No one, obviously! ( )
  Gimley_Farb | Jul 6, 2015 |
Eh. I enjoyed the chapter about "The Dream of Prediction", but the rest was pretty unsatisfying. ( )
  tgraettinger | Feb 2, 2015 |
Engaging criticism of “common sense” and warning about our ability to narrativize what happened as if the sequence of events were itself causal. Maybe Apple is the most valuable company in the world because of Apple’s great decisions—but there are a lot of great decisions that didn’t turn out so well. That doesn’t mean we can never know anything, but it does mean that sociological causation is very different from physics-style causation. Watts ends up advocating for big data (it can generate patterns that are more reliable in aggregate than other kinds of predictions, at least in the absence of huge changes in behavior that are themselves hard to predict) and small-scale solutions. Instead of planning at a large scale, policymakers should look for what’s already working in a few places and try to react fast to new information–though this is of course easier said than done. In the process, he unfortunately misdescribes the “Race to the Top” education initiative, which he uses as an example of a good, market-based idea—he says it sets broad goals and lets individual school districts figure out how best to meet the goals, but actually it favors states that fire principals and teachers and substitute charters, exactly the kind of preconceived solution he crticizes elsewhere. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Oct 11, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
"Everything Is Obvious" is an uncommonly sensible book.
added by Katya0133 | editWall Street Journal, Christopher F. Chabris (Apr 9, 2011)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385531680, Hardcover)

Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world? Why did Facebook succeed when other social networking sites failed? Did the surge in Iraq really lead to less violence? How much can CEO’s impact the performance of their companies? And does higher pay incentivize people to work hard?

If you think the answers to these questions are a matter of common sense, think again. As sociologist and network science pioneer Duncan Watts explains in this provocative book, the explanations that we give for the outcomes that we observe in life—explanation that seem obvious once we know the answer—are less useful than they seem.

Drawing on the latest scientific research, along with a wealth of historical and contemporary examples, Watts shows how common sense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go awry.

It seems obvious, for example, that people respond to incentives; yet policy makers and managers alike frequently fail to anticipate how people will respond to the incentives they create. Social trends often seem to have been driven by certain influential people; yet marketers have been unable to identify these “influencers” in advance. And although successful products or companies always seem in retrospect to have succeeded because of their unique qualities, predicting the qualities of the next hit product or hot company is notoriously difficult even for experienced professionals.

Only by understanding how and when common sense fails, Watts argues, can we improve how we plan for the future, as well as understand the present—an argument that has important implications in politics, business, and marketing, as well as in science and everyday life.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:28 -0400)

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Discusses how the concept of common sense is inadequate in an increasingly complex world and draws on multiple disciplines to offer insight into the sources of such topics as popularity, economics, and self-deception.

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