Book review: Everything is obvious, by Duncan J Watts

This clever and amusing assault on conventional wisdom ought to become a popular science hit, says Adrian Furnham.

by Adrian Furnham
Last Updated: 03 Oct 2011

Perhaps it started with the science journalism of Daniel Goleman, whose book Emotional Intelligence became a runaway success. Then there was Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point and Blink. The question is, will this book do the same thing for Duncan Watts? Will he become the darling of chat shows, get invited to give keynote speeches at business conferences and be persuaded to rush out a sequel?

As a psychologist, to read some of these books is to be transported back to the undergraduate social psychology textbooks of the 1970s. The authors breathlessly report in easy journalese studies done years ago and known to every student. 'Oh no,' I lamented at the start of the book - 'not the Milgram study again.' But this author is a sociologist and he looks at things differently, and in f act gives sociology a good name. He is highly articulate and well read. He is very clever: how many sociologists publish in Nature and Science? He writes well and knows how to amuse. There is little jargon and he is willing to take on the critiques of the really hard scientists (read physicists). He advocates doing experiments and knows advanced statistics.

The subtitle to this book is instructive. We know the common sense game played by social scientists. Descartes said that common sense was the most commonly distributed quality in the world because everybody thought that they had a great share of it. Social scientists are often accused of jargonising common sense.

Four criticisms are often made. First, social science is little more than common sense; its findings are unsurprising, uninformative, even tautological. Second, social science debases common sense. It takes every simple idea and through jargon renders it obscure. Third, social science's descriptions of people and processes are simply not true. Fourth, many social scientists are dangerous. Their ideas and practices make them cynical manipulators of employees - social scientists have political agendas.

Being sensitive to these criticisms, which they naturally see as misplaced, social scientists have often confronted this point at the beginning of their books, warning of the dangers of common sense, which lulls people into the false belief that they understand others. Some even provocatively mention the term 'uncommon sense'.

Thus, it is argued that common sense cannot tell us under which conditions each generalisation is true - for that, scientific research is required. Others have tried to persuade readers that common knowledge provides only inconsistent and misleading suggestions for understanding social behaviour by giving a short test.

The problem is that because social science, particularly psychology, returns its findings to most people through media reports, including articles in business magazines and seminars, so they are apt to become more familiar and 'commonsensical' over time. At first, discoveries are disbelieved, then found interesting, then become obvious, until finally we become oblivious to them.

In Everything is Obvious, Watts argues that common sense is heuristical - that it is practical, collective, tacit knowledge. We accumulate it to make sense of the world. But it is context-dependent; it is less about rationality and more about rationalising. Watts 'comes out' very clearly and many times as a proud sociologist. He takes pot-shots at economists, psychologists and historians. He aims to correct our 'individualistic' thinking and laments: 'Common sense explanations sidestep the whole problem of how individual choices aggregate to collective behaviour simply by replacing the collective with a representative individual.' (p79)

The book ends with a critical but sympathetic look at social science and what it can and cannot do. Watts is quite happy to accept that social scientists also make all the common-sense mistakes: 'ex post facto assertions of rationality, representative individuals, special people, and correlation substituting for causation'.

He is a network analyst, and a good one too. He thinks these types of analyses may be the best instrument by which social science can address some of the difficult issues.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes. Would I like to go to dinner with the author? Very much. Will it be a blockbuster? Probably not. We don't like having common sense undermined so cleverly.

Everything is Obvious: How common sense fails
Duncan J Watts
Atlantic Books £18.99

- Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London.

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