Everything Is Obvious: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 27th, 2012 by bobmorris

Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us
Duncan J. Watts
Crown Business (2011)

 How we can “revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and how we interact”

As I began to read this book, I was reminded of a passage in Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not `[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather `[begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” This seems to be what Duncan Watts has in mind when he suggests, in the Preface, that there is much to be gained from challenging our assumptions about the world “or even more important, when we realize we’re making an assumption that we didn’t even know we were making…Questioning our own beliefs in this way isn’t easy, but it is the first step in forming new, hopefully more accurate beliefs. Because the chances that we’re already correct in anything wee believe are essentially zero.”

Watts carefully organizes and presents his material within two Parts, devoting Chapters 1-6 to “Common Sense” and Chapters 7-10 to “Uncommon Sense.” These are among the subjects, themes, and issues that he examines with rigor and eloquence:

Common Sense

o Why it is usually sufficient to solving immediate, everyday problems
o Why it is usually inadequate to solving complicated problems involving many people over time
o Why it can seldom explain human behavior (e.g. what motivates people and why)
o Why it tends to view (and explain) collective behavior as individual behavior
o Why understanding events of the past seldom (if ever) facilitates accurate predictions of events yet to occur
o Why “the past is far less deterministic — and far less informative — than it may seem

Uncommon Sense

o Why it is necessary to “build uncertainty into our strategic planning” with strategies that are robust to different versions of the future.”
o Why a “measure and react approach” to the future can be preferable to relying on predictions
o Why fairness and justice should be based on “the interdependent nature of social and economic systems”
o Why the technological revolution of the Internet could help the social sciences to become more “scientific”

No brief commentary such as this can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of information, insights, and counsel that Duncan Watts provides in this book. it is by no means an “easy read” (I re-read it and then reviewed the passages I had highlighted) but it will generously reward those who read and (hopefully) re-read it with appropriate care and if (HUGE “if”) they are both willing and able to set aside their assumptions and premises (especially their favorite assumptions) about human nature in general and about what the mind is and does, in particular. Also, if (another HUGE “if”) they can free themselves from what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes (in Leading Change) as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

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