Everything Is Obvious* Once You Know the Answer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am


Everything Is Obvious* Once You Know the Answer
by Duncan J. Watts
Crown Business

Science has been at war with common sense for decades. It's usual for us to look at any situation and apply our common sense - sometimes in the form of our intuition - to try to understand it.

Unfortunately, the way that the world works does not follow the rules of common sense, and it usually leads us down the wrong path of understanding.

Take quantum physics, for instance. Common sense tells us that it's impossible for something to be in two places at the same time - it has to be in one place or another. But that's not so. Scientists have observed that electrons can be in two places at the same time.

In Everything Is Obvious*, Duncan J. Watts takes the assault on common sense into the realm of the social sciences. We use common sense to make predictions about what's going to happen in our social and business relationships, and to make sense of what has happened in the past, he says. We generally always get it wrong on both counts.

The main problem with common sense, says Watts, is that if you square it with in-depth statistical research, the common sense view is usually wrong. For instance, it's common to believe that if a song is popular, it will become more popular - what marketing specialists call cumulative advantage. Watts ran a test over the internet and found that while this idea was not entirely false, the results were mediated by many other factors. The basics of his theory lie in the idea that our common sense will always be at fault because there are so many factors influencing our perceptions that we can't make sense of them all.

As for the past, we tend to view it in the light of big events. We structure a narrative around these events which irons out much of the chaos of real life. So even our history is skewed by the limitations of our common sense, says Watts.

Common sense is good for some things, he says. It's an effective way of navigating the simple tasks of everyday life. If someone drops a bucket from ladder, we should move out of the way as it might hit us on the head. But for anything more complex, science can provide a more accurate view of reality.