Everything is Obvious: Why Common Sense is Nonsense

Everything is obvious – once you know the answer. That is the suggestion put forward by Duncan J Watts in his book. Is is not available as an ebook, which is very annoying, so I had to read this one using paper. Like I am living in the nineties…

It was a phenomenal read. Watts first puts forward the case against common sense. Within the first twenty pages I felt like I could never trust myself to make a decision again. Luckily common sense is not the kind of thing that lets logic get in the way, as Watts explains.

He points out that common sense is not that common. If it was, we could all just think about a problem, and come to the same conclusion. But we do not. Common sense is built up from our experiences to explain how to deal with every day situations. That means that each of us has different common sense. Not to mention that many of our common sense rules are contradictory to each other.

This is a problem because when we try and solve a problem, we often use common sense. These are built on our experiences, which are different from other people’s experiences, hence are not directly translatable. One of the most extreme cases of this is that what is the obvious solution to a politician from a rich Western country is not the actual solution that impoverished third world countries actually need.

He then goes on to point out that when you realise you cannot trust your own common sense and go looking at lessons from history, these are useless too. History only plays out once, which as any statistician will tell you, is a pretty poor sample size. The iPod may have been a huge success while MiniDisc floundered, but was it due to Apple having a better strategy than Sony, or where they simply the victims of circumstances? The honest answer is, we will probably never know.

Finally he presents some solutions to the problems put forward. We need to be aware of our biases. We need to do things that we can test and measure scientifically. Sometimes however, this simply is not possible. In those situations, we are basically screwed…

Still, at least we know that now.




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This entry was posted on Saturday, April 26th, 2014 at 11:19 am and is filed under Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.