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Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer Hardcover – March 29, 2011
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"Mr. Watts, a former sociology professor and physicist who is now a researcher for Yahoo, has written a fascinating book that ranges through psychology, economics, marketing and the science of social networks.”
- The Wall Street Journal
“It’s about time a sociologist wrote an amazing and accessible book for a non-specialist audience. Everything Is Obvious*: Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts is that amazing book.”
- Inside Higher Ed
“In this bold thesis, renowned network scientist Duncan J. Watts exposes the complex mechanics of judgement and proposes a radical new way of thinking about human behaviour.”
— Scott Wilson, The Fringe Magazine
“Common sense is a kind of bespoke make-believe, and we can no more use it to scientifically explain the workings of the social world than we can use a hammer to understand mollusks.”
— Nicholas Christakis, The New York Times
“Everything is Obvious is engagingly written and sparkles with counter-intuitive insights. Its modesty about what can and cannot be known also compares favourably with other “big idea” books.”
— James Crabtree, comment editor Financial Times
"Every once in a while, a book comes along that forces us to re-examine what we know and how we know it. This is one of those books. And while it is not always pleasurable to realize the many ways in which we are wrong, it is useful to figure out the cases where our intuitions fail us."
- Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational
“A deep and insightful book that is a joy to read. There are new ideas on every page, and none of them is obvious!”
-Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness
"A brilliant account of why, for every hard question, there’s a common sense answer that’s simple, seductive, and spectacularly wrong. If you are suspicious of pop sociology, rogue economics, and didactic history – or, more importantly, if you aren’t! – Everything is Obvious is necessary reading. It will literally change the way you think."
- Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology. New York University
"You have to take notice when common sense, the bedrock thing we’ve always counted on, is challenged brilliantly. Especially when something better than common sense is suggested. As we increasingly experience the world as a maddeningly complex blur, we need a new way of seeing. The fresh ideas in this book, like the invention of spectacles, help bring things into better focus."
- Alan Alda
“Everything is Obvious is indicated for managers, scholars, or anyone else tired of oversimplified, faulty explanations about how business, government, society and even sports work. Temporary side effects of reading Duncan Watts' tour de force include: light-headedness, a tendency to question one's colleagues, temporary doubt in one's own strategies. Long term effects include: Deeper insight into history, current events, corporate politics and any other human activity that involves more than one person at a time. Everything is Obvious is available without a prescription.”
- Dalton Conley, Dean for the Social Sciences, New York University
"A truly important work that's bound to rattle the cages of pseudo- and self-proclaimed experts in every field. If this book doesn't force you to re-examine what you're doing, something is wrong with you."
- Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, and co-founder of Alltop.com.
"Watts brings science to life. A complicated, global, interconnected world, one which often overwhelms, is tamed by wit, skepticism, and the power to challenge conventional wisdom. The book will help you see patterns, where you might have thought chaos ruled."
-Sudhir Venkatesh, William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University
About the Author
DUNCAN WATTS, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, is a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research. A former officer in the Royal Australian Navy, he holds a Ph.D. in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from Cornell University. He is the author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (Norton, 2003). He lives in New York City.
For more information visit www.everythingisobvious.com
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Watts begins by pointing out the difference between individual “common sense” decisions and attempting to use those same solutions on a business-wide or society-wide basis. Looking in all directions before driving into traffic makes an accident less likely because you only need to take into account a few other drivers over a limited period of time. The nation’s economy, on the other hand, is affected by thousands of businesses and millions of individuals throughout the world, interacting in a highly complex manner. And, as Watts notes over and over, groups operate in a vastly different manner than individuals do.
In “Everything is Obvious,” Watts explores and debunks many of the common myths that affect “commons sense” thinking. He notes the tendency to try to explain a highly successful phenomenon, like the “Harry Potter” books, simply by listing its attributes. In essence, it’s an argument that “Harry Potter” succeeded because it was more like “Harry Potter” than anything else, and not how or why any or all of those attributes contributed to the success. Part of the reason for blockbusters like “Potter” is that success breeds success. The more people who like something, the more that others will want to try it and find themselves liking it as well. He points to an experiment in which people were asked to select among a variety of songs to download. Some proved more popular than others, of course. But, when people saw how many people had already downloaded each of the songs, the popular ones became much more popular as a result.
The music experiment is one of the reasons why finding answers to sociologically problems has proved more difficult than finding answers to physical ones, Watts notes that physical phenomena can be easily measured and their relationships determined. Once we had accurate telescopes and measuring devices, early astronomers measured the movements of stars and planets, and eventually Newton promulgated his laws. Similarly, in medicine, we can determine if a particular drug is effective in fighting a disease by performing a controlled experiment. Unfortunately, as Watts points out, you can’t invade half of Iraq to determine whether it’s the right thing to do. Sociologists and historians can examine history to determine what happened, but that result may well have been a fluke, since you only fight a war one time. Further, it’s almost always impossible to isolate a single reason, or even the combination of reasons, for why something succeeded or failed.
From a literary standpoint, “Everything Is Obvious” is a highly entertaining read. Watts fills the book with familiar anecdotes (Sony’s failed decision to push Betamax instead of Matushita’s VHS format) and other not-so-familiar ones (how the theft of the Mona Lisa in the early 20th century contributed to its popularity). Trivia buffs will have hours of fun just going through the book for its entertainment value alone. But, along the way, Watts is able to poke holes in some very commonly held misconceptions that affect not just the thinking of the average person but those making decisions as well. And, by the way, the “representative person” myth, namely that you seek to determine the behavior of a group by isolating a representative person and figuring out how and why he or she acts is doomed to failure simply because it ignores the group dynamic.
As for finding solutions to the “common sense” problem, Watts’s book is somewhat short on answers, in large part because the types of problems he addresses still often aren’t susceptible to scientific solutions in practice. Fortunately, with the advent of the Internet and social media, we can now perform some experiments, like the music sampling one, on a large enough scale and with enough variations, to begin to get some answers. And, as he points out, companies that already practice “measure and react” planning are finding a lot of success.
I enjoyed “Everything Is Obvious” a great deal, although at times I found Watts a bit more interested in giving readers the benefit of all the “goodies” his research had unearthed as opposed to writing a more disciplined, highly structured book. So, it’s possible to lose sight of the forest for the trees at times here. However, this book is not a doctoral dissertation or a manual for CEO’s and planners. Instead, it’s a breezy attempt to give the average person better insight into how and why we try, and usually fail, to solve some major problems through “common sense.” And, while it’s not an answer to many problems, common sense tells me that a lot of people will have fun reading “Everything is Obvious.”
He he walks amongst the big questions with all the skills of a scientist who understands the needs for rigour, but accepts that the human (whether they be in policy, research or dinner table discussions) is supremely adaptable, especially when it comes to paradox, consistency, and commitment over time. I hope this becomes a widely used text for students and educators. It is rich in ideas and his footnotes and references provide a great signpost to further reading for people with all sorts of parochial interests.
Read it, and I am sure you will be tempted to grab a pencil and underline more than a few well argued comments and conclusions.
Most recent customer reviews
No doubt, after reading the book, that everything is obvious once you know what happened
In a very entertaining and educating way, Duncan makes...Read more