Read Everything Is Obvious Online

Authors: Duncan J. Watts

Everything Is Obvious

BOOK: Everything Is Obvious

Copyright © 2011 by Duncan Watts

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Business,
an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Crown Business is a trademark and the Rising Sun colophon is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Watts, Duncan J., 1971–
Everything is obvious : once you know the answer /
Duncan Watts. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
1. Thought and thinking.   2. Common sense.   3. Reasoning.
I. Title.

BF441.W347 2011
eISBN: 978-0-385-53169-6

Jacket design by Laura Duffy
Jacket Photographs © George Diebold Photography / Getty Images


For Jack and Lily

A Sociologist’s Apology

In January 1998, about halfway through my first year out of graduate school, my housemate at the time handed me a copy of
New Scientist
magazine containing a book review by the physicist and science writer John Gribbin. The book Gribbin was reviewing was called
Tricks of the Trade
, by the Chicago sociologist Howard Becker, and was mostly a collection of Becker’s musings on how to do productive social science research. Gribbin clearly hated it, judging Becker’s insights to be the kind of self-evident checks that “real scientists learn in the cradle.” But he didn’t stop there. He went on to note that the book had merely reinforced his opinion that all of social science was “something of an oxymoron” and that “any physicist threatened by cuts in funding ought to consider a career in the social sciences, where it ought to be possible to solve the problems the social scientists are worked up about in a trice.”

There was a reason my roommate had given me this particular review to read and why that particular line stuck in my head. I had majored in physics at college, and at the time when I read Gribbin’s review I had just finished my PhD in engineering; I had written my dissertation on the mathematics of what are now called small-world networks.
But although my training had been in physics and mathematics, my interests had turned increasingly toward the social sciences and I was just beginning what turned out to be a career
in sociology. So I felt that in a sense I was embarking on a miniature version of Gribbin’s proposed experiment. And to be honest, I might have suspected that he was right.

Twelve years later, however, I think I can say that the problems sociologists, economists, and other social scientists are “worked up about” are not going to be solved in a trice, by me or even by a legion of physicists. I say this because since the late 1990s many hundreds, if not thousands of physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians, and other “hard” scientists have taken an increasing interest in questions that have traditionally been the province of the social sciences—questions about the structure of social networks, the dynamics of group formation, the spread of information and influence, or the evolution of cities and markets. Whole fields have arisen over the past decade with ambitious names like “network science” and “econophysics.” Datasets of immense proportions have been analyzed, countless new theoretical models have been proposed, and thousands of papers have been published, many of them in the world’s leading science journals, such as
Science, Nature
, and
Physical Review Letters
. Entire new funding programs have come into existence to support these new research directions. Conferences on topics such as “computational social science” increasingly provide forums for scientists to interact across old disciplinary boundaries. And yes, many new jobs have appeared that offer young physicists the chance to explore problems that once would have been deemed beneath them.

The sum total of this activity has far exceeded the level of effort that Gribbin’s offhand remark implied was required. So what have we learned about those problems that social scientists were so worked up about back in 1998? What do we really know about the nature of deviant behavior or the origins of social practices or the forces that shift cultural norms—the
kinds of problems that Becker talks about in his book—that we didn’t know then? What new solutions has this new science provided to real-world problems, like helping relief agencies respond more effectively to humanitarian disasters in places like Haiti or New Orleans, or helping law enforcement agencies stop terrorist attacks, or helping financial regulatory agencies police Wall Street and reduce systemic risk? And for all the thousands of papers that have been published by physicists in the past decade, how much closer are we to answering the really big questions of social science, like the economic development of nations, the globalization of the economy, or the relationship between immigration, inequality, and intolerance? Pick up the newspaper and judge for yourself, but I would say not much.

If there’s a lesson here, you might think it would be that the problems of social science are hard not just for social scientists, but for physicists as well. But this lesson, it seems, has not been learned. Quite to the contrary, in fact, in 2006 Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, proposed that Congress cut the entire social and behavioral sciences budget of the National Science Foundation. Bailey Hutchison, it should be noted, is not antiscience—in 2005 she proposed doubling funds for medical science. Rather, it was exclusively
science research that she felt “is not where we should be directing [NSF] resources at this time.” Ultimately the proposal was defeated, but one might still wonder what the good senator was thinking. Presumably she doesn’t think that social
are unimportant—surely no one would argue that immigration, economic development, and inequality are problems that are somehow unworthy of attention. Rather it appears that, like Gribbin, she doesn’t consider social problems to be
problems, worthy of the prolonged attention of serious scientists. Or as
Hutchinson’s colleague from Oklahoma, Senator Tom Coburn, put it three years later in a similar proposal, “Theories on political behavior are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters.”

Senators Hutchinson and Coburn are not alone in their skepticism of what social science has to offer. Since becoming a sociologist, I have frequently been asked by curious outsiders what sociology has to say about the world that an intelligent person couldn’t have figured out on their own. It’s a reasonable question, but as the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld pointed out nearly sixty years ago, it also reveals a common misconception about the nature of social science. Lazarsfeld was writing about
The American Soldier
, a then-recently published study of more than 600,000 servicemen that had been conducted by the research branch of the war department during and immediately after the Second World War. To make his point, Lazarsfeld listed six findings from the study that he claimed were representative of the report. For example, number two was that “Men from rural backgrounds were usually in better spirits during their Army life than soldiers from city backgrounds.” “Aha,” says Lazarsfeld’s imagined reader, “that makes perfect sense. Rural men in the 1940s were accustomed to harsher living standards and more physical labor than city men, so naturally they had an easier time adjusting. Why did we need such a vast and expensive study to tell me what I could have figured out on my own?”

Why indeed.… But Lazarsfeld then reveals that all six of the “findings” were in fact the exact opposite of what the study actually found. It was city men, not rural men, who were happier during their Army life. Of course, had the reader been told the real answers in the first place she could just as easily have reconciled them with other things that she
already thought she knew: “City men are more used to working in crowded conditions and in corporations, with chains of command, strict standards of clothing and social etiquette, and so on. That’s obvious!” But that’s exactly the point that Lazarsfeld was making. When every answer
and its opposite
appears equally obvious, then, as Lazarsfeld put it, “something is wrong with the entire argument of ‘obviousness.’ ”

Lazarsfeld was talking about social science, but what I will argue in this book is that his point is equally relevant to any activity—whether politics, business, marketing, philanthropy—that involves understanding, predicting, changing, or responding to the behavior of people. Politicians trying to decide how to deal with urban poverty already feel that they have a pretty good idea why people are poor. Marketers planning an advertising campaign already feel that they have a decent sense of what consumers want and how to make them want more of it. And policy makers designing new schemes to drive down healthcare costs or to improve teaching quality in public schools or to reduce smoking or to improve energy conservation already feel that they can do a reasonable job of getting the incentives right. Typically people in these positions do not expect to get everything right all the time. But they also feel that the problems they are contemplating are mostly within their ability to solve—that “it’s not rocket science,” as it were.
Well, I’m no rocket scientist, and I have immense respect for the people who can land a machine the size of a small car on another planet. But the sad fact is that we’re actually much better at planning the flight path of an interplanetary rocket than we are at managing the economy, merging two corporations, or even predicting how many copies of a book will sell. So why is it that rocket science
hard, whereas problems having to do with people—which
arguably are much harder
like they ought to be just a matter of common sense? In this book, I argue that the key to the paradox is common sense itself.

Criticizing common sense, it must be said, is a tricky business, if only because it’s almost universally regarded as a good thing—when was the last time you were told
to use it? Well, I’m going to tell you that a lot. As we’ll see, common sense is indeed exquisitely adapted to handling the kind of complexity that arises in everyday situations. And for those situations, it’s every bit as good as advertised. But “situations” involving corporations, cultures, markets, nation-states, and global institutions exhibit a very different kind of complexity from everyday situations. And under these circumstances, common sense turns out to suffer from a number of errors that systematically mislead us. Yet because of the way we learn from experience—even experiences that are never repeated, or that take place in other times and places—the failings of commonsense reasoning are rarely apparent to us. Rather, they manifest themselves to us simply as “things we didn’t know at the time” but which seem obvious in hindsight. The paradox of common sense, therefore, is that even as it helps us make sense of the world, it can actively undermine our ability to understand it. If you don’t quite understand what that last sentence means, that’s OK, because explaining it, along with its implications for policy, planning, forecasting, business strategy, marketing, and social science is what the rest of this book is about.

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