Another Insightful -- If Jargon-Rich -- Look at Why Conventional Wisdom Can Be Anything But

Kai Ryssdal Reviews Duncan Watts' 'Everything Is Obvious Once You Know the Answer'

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Why is the Mona Lisa the best painting of all time? Why, because it looks exactly like the Mona Lisa, of course. That's just common sense. It's also the through-line of Duncan Watts' latest book, "Everything Is Obvious Once You Know the Answer."

Watts, a physicist by academic training, a sociologist by virtue of his former employment at Columbia University, and presently a research scientist at Yahoo, is staking his claim to join the long line of stunningly popular and New York Times best-selling authors telling you how everything you thought you knew was wrong and why. That list would include, at the top of the list, "Freakonomics" (parts one and deux) by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, as well as Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational" and, in a left-handed way as we'll see later on, Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point."

But I digress; back to the Mona Lisa. Mr. Watts figures La Giaconda is a little bit like Paris Hilton. She's certainly pleasant enough to look at, but is actually famous mostly for being famous. That line of reasoning obviously has certain circularity to it, and as you begin to wade through what turns out to be a fairly dense read, it's also the last real moment of, well, common sense.

"Common sense," Watts writes, "is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time." OK, got that.

Basically, conventional wisdom is often neither conventional nor wise. But just as soon as he’s done telling us why common sense is not a truth universally acknowledged -- and he tells us that in a reasonably clear and straightforward way -- he gets his inner-analytical geek on.

This is not, sadly, a book for the lay reader. Those hoping for the accessible insights promised by the title and afforded by "Freakonomics" et. al. will be left wanting. There's fairly heavy lifting to be done in following Watts' recounting of experiments and theories of human behavior. And much as I loathe the phrase "jargon-watch," I'm obliged to employ it here. The unsuspecting reader will find herself tripping over inside-baseball terminology like "methodological individualists" and "cumulative advantage models." Nothing takes the fun out of a difficult read like having to flip pages backward searching for definitions.

That's not to say, however, that there aren't some interesting tidbits to be had here, perhaps the most delicious of which involves a skewering of Malcolm Gladwell. Watts, it should be noted, is an expert in network dynamics -- yes, I know, jargon-watch -- having done graduate work studying how crickets synchronize their chirping. In other words, he's pretty well situated to address one of the main points Gladwell makes in "The Tipping Point," namely what all marketers really need to do to sell more of whatever they're selling (in "The Tipping Point" the example is Hush Puppies -- the shoes, not the side dish) is to convince a few influentials to sport a pair and they'll be all set. Au contraire, says Watts, and proceeds to demonstrate experimentally what Gladwell (and other proponents of the "influentials" theory) never quite address: that it is, in fact, how willing a society is to be influenced, rather than what a handful of individuals do, that determines how quickly trends spread.

Watts has clearly thought about his subject long and deeply. And there are places in it where your eyebrows raise and you will mutter "oooh, that makes sense" under your breath. Unfortunately most of those moments happen in the first 60 pages or so. After that, you're on your own.

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of public radio's “Marketplace.” He can be reached at [email protected]
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