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Everything Is Obvious Once You Know The Answer by Duncan J. Watts

01/08/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Everything Is Obvious Once You Know The Answer in the USA - or Buy Everything Is Obvious Once You Know The Answer in the UK

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pub: Atlantic Books. 355 page indexed hardback. Price: GBP18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84887-214-1

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As I’ve commented with other books, the sub-title actually gives away more about the content than the main title. The same applies with this case, ‘Everything Is Obvious Once You Know The Answer’, where it is ‘How Common Sense Fails’. I always thought ‘commonsense’ was a single word but bear in mind author Duncan Watts is American and some of his references are obviously Stateside orientated. Later in the book, he spells the word both ways, so the odds have to be whether he was edging his bets or not paying attention. Commonsense (sic) should prevail. Even more so when it comes to politeness and mindset. I mean, in the UK we’re far more likely to give up a seat on the tube or train to someone who would need it more than compared to his American example.

Anyway, as Watts points out, commonsense is what we use to make sense of the world about us. According to him, a lot of the time the decisions we make about the world is made by a translation of the knowledge we are given which tends not to consider beyond surface information let alone accuracy. As more information is learnt, your commonsense re-orientates to what you know and also to what others have to say on the same subject. All of this even before we get to personal preference. As such, humans are prone to make rash judgements with little information, relying on gut instinct rather than fact which Watts makes a valid point that you shouldn’t always rely on such judgements.

From my perspective, I don’t tend to apply my commonsense until I know something about a subject and make a value judgement without bias but as I have a reputation for being a ‘deep thinker’, I’m probably not normal in that respect. Then again, I don’t tend to go along with the herd, neither.

Speaking of herd instinct, Watts examination of the Net, specifically Facebook and then Twitter in more detail points out that networking still depends on the many reading what a few do and spreading the word. This also fulfils being in contact with nearly anyone through six degrees of separation. Considering I don’t use social networking sites, I did have a ponder on this but in terms of my own connections but not so much with people but with companies. As a review editor, I’m in contact with over two hundred publishers at one time or another through their publicists but periodically every year, some of them move on and new names replace them and still maintain the same contact but it makes me connected to a company more than a person in an odd sort of way. Based on that, know me and you’re one degree away from knowing a lot of publishing companies which reduces the six stages considerably. It would be interesting to see Watts examining super-links of this nature one day. Oh, from what he says, be careful of Twitters who plug various products because it would appear they are getting paid well to do so.

It’s when Watts starts examining commonsense as a form of betting odds, then we are back into the world of statistics. I tend to find that when you’re applying commonsense to prediction that it can never take into account all outside odds. Watts example of Sony’s business sense with Betamax video recorders and mini-CDs having quality but limited use from other companies isn’t something new. Look at all the early computer systems that bit the dust because of incompatibility issues. We deal a lot with it in Science Fiction and as I’ve commented before, our early SF authors got their predictions wrong mostly because they only acted on things they knew at the time rather than where it can lead. Today, many of us aren’t much better and even scared to predict some futures in their stories but more from the point of view of science showing it impractical or happening today already. Science and technology does move in great strides these days.

The latter chapters seem to go off track a little but this is made up by the earlier chapters. I wish Watts had explored how people can improve their commonsense but this book will give you some insight into what makes yours tick. Nevertheless, if you’re wondering on what makes your commonsense decisions decide what way to go then you will find some use from this book.

GF Willmetts

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