Monday, October 10, 2011

Everything is Obvious by Duncan Watts

What a great book!  No mere Freakonomics or Gladwell style coverage of interesting discoveries, Watts presents an excellent defence of sociology and how its many topics are critically important to public policy discussions.  I often thought those types of works could use more theory foundation so I was pleased to see this in Everything is Obvious. The premise of the book is that most people think a lot of sociological findings are obvious when in fact they are not, and further, that they only seem this way due to psychological biases we have. For example, hindsight bias (related to creeping determinism) is the tendency to see events that have already happened as more predictable than before they occurred. People claim that x happening was obvious, when it never was. Similarly, plausible stories can often be spun to explain a phenomenon, but the problem is that equally plausible stories can be spun to explain the opposite. By only focusing on the actual outcome, it is forgotten how important actual evidence is to arbitrate between competing narratives.

The personal highlight was the analysis surrounding how we try to understand anything, from past and present to future. For example, to comprehend history we like (need?) to input narratives but this involves omission and working backwards from knowledge of the outcome the seemingly overly important events. Additionally, luck plays a large role in many events, but it is often unacknowledged by most. Everything is Obvious presents a deeper discussion than just 'omission and luck matter' so do not be put off by my cursory coverage.

Highly recommended. 


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