Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Praise Of The Obvious

Ryan Holiday recently wrote a post encouraging us, in a roundabout way, to seek the counter-intuitive. On the contrary, I think the counter-intuitive is overrated. Consider:
  • It is very difficult to find an RSS feed that only lists the basic, most important findings from any particular field, even though this would be the most useful to an outsider. 
  • Inception is unlikely to win the Oscar for best picture (currently 80 to 1), even though it has by far the highest weighted average rating of any movie this year. 
  • Academics love to conduct and publish paradigm-shifting research, but are much less interested in replications or confirmations. This leads to lots of problems.
The best way to explain these conundrums is to admit that we love the counter-intuitive, we love to associate ourselves with it, and we love to demonstrate our uniqueness in doing so. Far from encouraging these tendencies, we should instead shun them. If the obvious thing is best, we must endorse it just as strongly, or we risk sending confusing signals to others.

Granted, there are some trade offs here, mainly between finding new ideas and reducing uncertainty about our current ones (an example of the more general breadth vs depth trade off). That is, if we only focused on what was currently obvious, we wouldn't come up with any new angles. But, at the margins of our current intellectual climate, it still seems to me that we should prefer more obviousness.

Frustratingly, all else equal, counter-intuitive thoughts are a good sign that somebody has a deep understanding of a subject and has thought it through beyond the status quo. So if we really want to encourage obviousness, we need to value the traits that lead to it, like formality and diligence, even more so than we value traits that lead to novel ideas, like creativity. As Ice T says, it's not about being mad about everything, it's about being really mad at the right things.