Book Review: Everything is Obvious: Once you Know the Answer

By Duncan J. Watts, 1st Ed., 2011, 335 pages

Reviewer: Mark Kaczmarek

Psst. This book seemed interesting after reading the author’s previous book about networks, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. Now, I was expecting a mathematical laden book with explanations about a crafty algorithm on decision making. Not in this book. This does dovetail with the entire author’s research behind networks that was developed during his studies at Cornell that produced the Six Degrees book. Watts starts off the book with the notion that our “common sense” isn’t so special after all, and can often lead us down wrong paths.

He provides this premise:

“The first of these features is that unlike formal systems of knowledge, which are fundamentally theoretical, common sense is overwhelmingly practical, meaning that it is more concerned with providing answers to questions than in worrying about how it came by the answers.” p. 9.

“Commonsense explanations therefore seem to tell us why something happened, when in fact all they’re doing is describing what happened.” p. 122.

Now in the first of 2 sections the author explains how common sense usually fails us in the first six chapters.

How common sense fails us.

The author lists three types of errors:

“The first type of error is that when we think about why people do what they do, we invariably focus on factors like incentives, motivations, and beliefs, of which we are consciously aware.” p. 25.

He covers why this happens:

“The result is that no matter how carefully we try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we are likely to make serious mistakes when predicting how they’ll behave anywhere outside of the immediate here and now.” p. 26.

And it goes downhill from there:

“If the first type of commonsense error is that our mental model of individual behavior is systematically flawed, the second type is that our mental model of collective behavior is even worse.” p. 26.

“The third and final type of problem with commonsense reasoning is that we learn less from history than we think we do, and that this misinterpretation in turn skews our perception of the future.” p. 27.

Are we doomed? No. Read on.

What is relevant?

“When trying to understand – or better yet predict – individual decisions, how are we to know which one of the many factors are the ones to pay attention to, and which can be safely ignored?” p. 43.

Good question.

“The only way to identify attributes that differentiate successful from unsuccessful entities is to consider both kinds, and to look for systematic differences. Yet because what we care about is success, it seems pointless – or simply uninteresting – to worry about the absence of success. Thus we infer that certain attributes are related to success when in fact they may be equally related to failure.” p. 114.

Sometimes my error as well, since I want to focus on what worked, ignoring the failures of the past … possible to repeat the downfall.

Now, in section 2, Uncommon Sense:

Hidden advice?

Trust No One, Especially Yourself. p. 171.

This is a sobering part of the book, and an example of what to expect.

Finally, here is the author’s perspective on what to do with all the information provided in the book:

“By improving the way we make plans and implement them, all these methods are designed to increase the likelihood of success.” p. 222.

This is the “golden nugget” summarizing the lessons of the book and why I wrote this review.

Now, this is where the systems engineer comes in with our methods and standards. We are certainly champions of success, and following the above conclusion about the formula for having plans that have covered the book’s pitfalls; we have a higher probability of success.

This is not a systems engineering book by any means. However, I feel that some of the examples and the progression through the book will be of assistance in our everyday (engineering) lives.

By the way, there’s even a section about Twitter – though the book was written several years before the current events in politics that have recently come about.

This book can be purchased from the following vendors: