April 24, 2011

10 Quotes from Everything is Obvious by Duncan Watts

Duncan Watts is a physicist interested in complex systems and sociology. In 1998 he co-wrote a paper with Steven Strogatz which presented a mathematical theory of the small world phenomenon. In 2002, he replicated Stanley Milgram's small world experiment using email messages. He is the author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. His new book is Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer. In this book he shows how common sense reasoning misleads us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go wrong. Here are some quotes from the book:
  1. "Common sense explanations are often characterized by circular reasoning."
  2. "Defaults are a part of the environment in which the decision maker operates, and so affect behavior in a way that is largely invisible to the conscious mind, and therefore largely absent from our commonsense explanations of the behavior."
  3. "The absence of "counterfactual" versions of history tends to have the effect that we tend to perceive what actually happened as having been inevitable."
  4. "The very notion of a well-defined "outcome", at which point we can evaluate, once and for all, the consequences of an action is a convenient fiction. In reality, the events that we label as outcomes are never really endpoints. Instead, they are artificially imposed, milestones. [...] At no point is the story ever really "over". Something always happens afterward, and what happens afterward is liable to change our perception of the current outcome, as well as our perception of the outcomes that we have already explained."
  5. "When we think about the future, we imagine it to be a unique thread of events that simply hasn't been revealed to us yet. In reality no such thread exists -rather the future is more like a bundle of possible threats. [...] Only when we concede that we cannot depend on our ability to predict the future are we open to a process that discovers it."
  6. "Finding out that something doesn't work is also the first step toward learning what does work."
  7. "The real world of human interactions is simply too messy and ambiguous a place ever to be governed by any predefined set of rules and regulations."
  8. "Success leads to prominence and recognition, which leads in turn to more opportunities to succeed, more resources with which to achieve success, and more likelihood of your subsequent successes being noticed and attributed to you. Isolating the effects of this accumulated advantage from differences in innate talent of hard work is difficult. [...] When we try to explain why some individual is rich or successful common sense insists that the outcome arises from some intrinsic quality of the object or person in question […] Whenever we find ourselves describing someone's ability in terms of societal measures of success -prizes, wealth, fancy titles-rather than in terms of what they are capable of doing, we ought to worry that we are deceiving ourselves."
  9. "The very ties that give our lives meaning also constrain us, and it is precisely by constraining us that they give us meaning."
  10. "Many social scientific explanations suffer from the same weaknesses -ex post fact assertions of rationality, representative individuals, special people, and correlation substituting for causations - that pervade our commonsense explanations as well.

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