Be careful with the ‘obvious’

I often find myself in conversations, gleefully sharing something I’ve just read or discovered, only to be shot down. “That’s obvious”, they say.

I find this problematic not only because what you find obvious is pretty specific to your education, experiences and context. But also cause things that are “obvious” so often prove false.

Common sense just isn’t a great indicator of reality, especially when it comes to abstract subjects. The world, and especially what we should do about it, is often counterfactual. Something feeling right really isn’t indicative of a larger truth.

For the past couple of months I’ve been running a script that sends me five random articles every day from the bottom of my pocket queue.

Lately I’ve gotten a lot from the 2016 US presidential election. “Donald Trump may not have a second act” said one New Yorker headline. “How Donald Trump Loses” said another from the New York Times.

I don’t mean to call these out specifically. At the time, I read these and similar articles vociferously (hence why they are over-represented in my pocket). I made much the same arguments. But the under current through all of this is that Trump obviously can’t win. That’s simply not how the world works.

Again, this may seem obvious. We’ve all had a reckoning since Trump (and Brexit etc. etc.). But when you’re reading articles from two years ago, day after day, you realise the tone hasn’t actually changed that much. We still talk like this. Stories are still often framed or dismissed from the same hubristic certainty – that’s not how the world works!

Why information hygiene matters

I’ve been struggling with the notion of beliefs as the output of a transitory and “swirling mass” of complexity inside each of us. Myriad tiny influences we can neither observe nor prise apart.

But, assuming this theory is valid, the logical conclusion is that the quality of the information you allow in is incredibly important. If that which inspires your System 1 thinking is rubbish, so is your thinking.

From The Hidden Half:

Asked to account for our beliefs and choices, how often would we say it was an unknown nudge from the flotsam of incidentals? ‘I probably only believe this because I pulled the equivalent of a red sock from my mental laundry under the influence of the last thing I heard in a bar. . .’

If the incidentals are so important, unpredictable and seemingly invisible, it’s not enough to swamp the bad with good. The only answer is to be incredibly vigilant about what gets in.

Perhaps this will prove easier than culling the poorly informed and conscious conspirators from our social networks.

As always my emphasis