More Like the Mona Lisa than Everything Else

Excerpt from "Duncan Watts on Common Sense," from To the Best of Our Knowledge, Jan. 15, 2012:

Jim Fleming: In your book, Eveything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us, you talk about Leonardo Davinci's painting, the Mona Lisa. What does the Mona Lisa have to do with common sense? d

Duncan Watts: It's sort of universally accepted that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because it has these particular attributes that make it a great painting. But of course, as it turns out, if you start dissecting that kind of explanation you find that there are lots of other paintings with the same attributes that you've never heard of.

And so the way that we tend to explain success and failure is by looking at the attributes of the thing or the person that succeeded or failed. And what I argue – and the Mona Lisa is just a way of illustrating this general argument – is that these explanations are actually vacuous, right? They're logically circular.

That we are saying, "the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because it's more like the Mona Lisa than everything else." And that might be true, but it really tells us nothing. It tells us just the description of what has happened. It's not actually telling us why something happened.