Peter's Reviews > Everything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer

Everything is Obvious by Duncan J. Watts
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's review
Aug 15, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: popular-science, psychology, audiobooks, read-in-2011
Read from August 15 to September 08, 2011

For most people (including me), it is surprisingly difficult to seriously consider the possibility that one is wrong about something. All the more so when the topic at hand is thought to be commonsense, as plain as the proverbial nose on your face. Personally, I find it kind of scary to reconsider that type of idea. Looking back a few centuries, I feel a certain sympathy for people who were being told for the first time that the earth revolves around the sun. What could be more obvious than that the opposite holds true?

This book considers a wide variety of present-day topics. Sociology is the theme, but many examples are taken from economics, big business, and investing. Those examples can get a little tiresome after a while, but that domain is relevant because it supplies some compelling examples of changing conventional wisdom. During the housing boom in the US in the 00s, for instance, it was obvious that real estate was a great investment. Since the crash, it's been obvious that that was a bubble. More generally, people and entities tend to be judged unfairly by outcomes, disregarding the roles of context and plain luck.

The book is more successful at explaining the problem of why predictions are hard to make in social settings than in presenting solutions to that problem. This makes sense because that is the state of the discipline at the moment. The author makes an analogy with astronomy before the invention of the telescope. The book concludes that even though aggregate social behavior is not rocket science (in fact it's far more unpredictable than that), there is hope that the Internet and social networks can help bring about some type of revolution in the social sciences.

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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Peter Enjoying this book a great deal so far. It's got me wondering (not for the first time): what beliefs do I hold that are intuitively, unquestionably obvious to me but false?

Peter Thanks to this book, I learned that this Sunday (8/21/2011) is the centennial anniversary of the theft of the Mona Lisa that (according to the author of this book) started that work's rise to World's Greatest Painting status.

Peter The book talks about a sociologist, name of Granovetter, who created an interesting model for how riots start. (NB: The model is deliberately simplistic; its intent is to illustrate one subtle phenomenon.) The model is a little like two very long chains of dominoes, identical except that one chain has a domino-length gap between Dominoes #2 and #3. From many perspectives, the two chains are virtually indistinguishable. But the effect of knocking over Domino #1 varies between "negligible disturbance" and "total destruction." I'll be interested to hear what the author says about how to take this type of subtlety into account.

Peter History is hard to write while it's taking place (the author actually claims it's impossible). As an example, the book describes how the analysts who pilloried the Cisco Systems CEO after the late-90s tech bubble burst, were the same ones who praised him when that company was at its peak. Its stock has continued to have ups&downs since then. I'm sure the author would see this phenomenon in the way people have interpreted the yo-yo-ing of the stock market a week or two ago.

Peter This audiobook talks about what a forecast is, in many situations (e.g., in the local weather report): a list of possible outcomes predicted by a model, together with their probabilities. The book also points out how easy it is to forget the alternative outcomes after the forecasted event has occurred. E.g., if the weatherman says "60% chance of rain" and it doesn't rain, everyone (unfairly, if you think about it) thinks the weatherman was wrong.

The book moreover talks about how (e.g.) "Hurricane Katrina" is shorthand for not only that natural disaster but also for the way that people and institutions (the people directly affected, government agencies) responded, both in the short term and in the long term--so that there is a social component to predicting catastrophes and their impacts.

As of this writing, Hurricane Irene is approaching the coast of North Carolina, and it is expected to move up the US East Coast with possible catastrophic damage to the big cities there. I read that it's not the highest "category" but it is expansive, with high "storm surge" flooding risk. The entire NYC subway system is being closed, for the first time ever. A range of outcomes has been forecasted. Fingers crossed that none of the worst-case scenarios occur and that the after-the-fact controversy is about whether this hurricane was overhyped.

Peter On the other hand, here's a Twin Cities weatherman accusing the media of crying wolf in advance:

Peter #%]}# link shortening. Anyway, one weatherman thinks it won't be that bad

Peter (For posterity: Irene did cause plenty of damage, but the major metropolitan areas avoided catastrophe.) I'm on Chapter 7 of this audiobook now. The fact that predictions are hard to make is pretty darn well established by this point. The author refers to another book, "The Strategy Paradox," by Michael Raynor. Apparently, according to that book, Apple's strategy for the iPod in the 00s is comparable in many ways to Sony's for Betamax in the 80s; moreover, emergent trends were key to making one a spectacular success and the other a crashing failure. In a rare offering of ways to actually deal with uncertainty, "Everything Is Obvious" (still citing Raynor? I'm unsure) suggests that corporate executives might focus heavily on preparing for multiple scenarios, delegating decisions under normal conditions to lower-level managers. Sounds reasonable, as far as it goes. Still waiting for the practical advice for non-CEO's...

Peter Famous last words. Watts concludes Chapter 7 with doubts about Raynor's idea of scenario planning. Too easy to convince oneself that one has truly considered all plausible scenarios. Chapter 8 is about deliberately being reactive rather than proactive. Actually, I think the point is that reactive is proactive if you're reacting quickly to incipient trends. This may be the long-awaited answer to the question of "what to do about it."

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