It’s perfectly simple…

I’m enjoying Duncan Watts’ Everything is Obvious. It’s a lucid takedown of the many easy mistakes we make in explaining how things happen in the world. To summarise it very crudely we come up with simplistic explanations for complex phenomena and ignore evidence that challenges our view.

It reminds me a great deal of the friction that arises in meetings, especially when things get sticky. There’s usually someone who impatiently and/or patronisingly announces that we’re wasting time and there’s obviously a better way of doing things. We humans so easily forget that we’re only small parts of complex systems with rather limited information about what’s really going on. We miss the distinction spotted by Oliver Wendell Holmes

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

… and end up like John Cleese’s schoolmaster.

2 thoughts on “It’s perfectly simple…

  1. Ian Glendinning

    Hi Johnny, agreed. The subtitle of the book “once you know the answer” and the Holmes quote also reminds me of the “every picture paints a thousand words” adage, which I often qualify with “once you understand the thousand words”.

    The simple can be a “token” for the complex, but it is not a substitute for understanding the complexity. Also – the conservation of complexity – The actual complexity is conserved however simple the explanation (provided you hadn’t previously over-complicated the situation).

  2. Matt Moore

    I liked the book. It seems to be part of a much broader sweep of writing and research that mixes an understanding of complexity with a skepticism about simple solutions.

    I liked Watts’ research – rather than just speculating, he wants to see what happens when you try something (i.e. are prediction markets actually better than, say, opinion polls).

    I know that you didn’t like the second half of the book as much as the first but Watts wasn’t pushing a single solution – and he was happy to criticise the solutions he did discuss (e.g. why scenario planning often fails).


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