Against Obviousness

Tyler Cowen points out why certain things we study are obvious:

Things can be obvious if they are simple. If something complicated is obvious, such as anything that anybody seriously studies, then for it to be simple you must be abstracting it a lot. When people find such things obvious, what they often mean is that the abstraction is so clear and simple its implications are unarguable. This is answering the wrong question. Most of the reasons such conclusions might be false are hidden in what you abstracted away. The question is whether you have the right abstraction for reality, not whether the abstraction has the implications it seems to.

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10 Responses to “Against Obviousness”


  1. 1 Halona Hong Truong August 31, 2009 at 9:17 AM

    I love this paragraph, and this is so true in our life today. Its rather you make is obvious or not. Beyond that we need to know what the purpose of a variable is in a given context otherwise it can be very easy to choose a name that will make no sense to someone later on.

  2. 2 Ben Petersen September 1, 2009 at 7:28 AM

    If you think about it, anything can be obvious. As you pull apart and break down a concept to understand it more, the more fimiliar with it you will become. And as you become more familiar with it, though complicated at first, it will now be simple, and in your case, unarguable.

  3. 3 marie moussa September 7, 2009 at 11:55 AM

    WE are in a world full of obvious things. People carefully need to study and learn more about it; especially, with all the technologies that are offered for us. The more you learn about these obvious things the more you will be familiar because things don’t appear to us with all there details.

  4. 4 Larry Oppenheimer September 8, 2009 at 8:59 PM

    I think the statement is very true, but its ramifications are felt on both sides of the coin.

    Some things are simple. There may be many variables in a situation, but that does not mean that all, or even most, of them are necessarily significant in all cases. Factoring in lots of variables that are not significant, even cumulatively, makes something more complicated than it is, increases the difficulty of analyzing it, and reduces the likelihood of accuracy in the analysis.

    The other side of the coin seems to be one of the primary challenges of economics. In economics, there is such a tremendous number of variables, many of which (such as taste) are neither predictable, nor necessarily directly measurable, that abstraction and data reduction are necessary in order to be able to reach any conclusions at all. But that’s a slippery slope, since, as they say (to combine two cliches in a single sentence), the devil’s in the details. How many variables do you ignore or approximate? Which ones? How do you fudge them?

    This would seem to me to be a primary cause for disagreements amongst economists, as well as the reason many disparage economists as equivocating to the point of rendering their statements meaningless. (No offense meant, Prof Balassi!)

    It’s a similar challenge to that Freud wrestled with in his work: many things have very important subtle, or even hidden, meanings, while sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sorting out which is which – ah, that’s the challenge!

  5. 5 Jessica Whalen September 12, 2009 at 4:53 PM

    I found the article to possess a certain amount of irony. For something of such obvious subject matter (please pardon the pun), it requires a fair amount of deciphering in order to be understood.

  6. 6 panama September 14, 2009 at 11:59 AM

    i didnt really understand this article but the parts i did understand made me want to write about it. i think they are trying to say that whats obvious to one person may not be so obvious to the next person. i think this is so true because it all depends on how you look at somthing. pepole see things diffrent and think about them diffrent. also everybody has been through diffrent things so somthing might be obvious to a person based on somthing they went through before but that other person didnt go through it so its not obvious to them.

  7. 7 Kirstie Scott September 17, 2009 at 11:12 PM

    This article sort of confused me. Upon first read, the message seemed pretty simple. But there some parts that I had to re-read a few times to get the jist of. I completely agree with Jessica Whalen’s comment:

    “For something of such obvious subject matter (please pardon the pun), it requires a fair amount of deciphering in order to be understood.”

  8. 8 yvonne December 2, 2009 at 9:31 PM

    This article is confusing to me. I think Ben broke it down to a much more understanding meaning. Thanks the light bulb turned on in my head when I read it again. It was stating the obvious.

    “Anything is obvious once you pull it apart and break it down to understand it more. The more familiar you are with it, the more obvious it is, even though it was complicated to begin with. Once it’s obvious to you, it’s unarguable.”

  9. 9 JoAnn Reynolds December 7, 2009 at 4:40 PM

    All things obvious? Perhaps but maybe it is just because people are more willing to pursue the most obvious and make everything less complicated. This article is one of those confusing metaphorical mysteries. Perhaps not so complicated a thing can be the most obviously simple in the end.

  10. 10 Hayden Scott December 14, 2009 at 5:42 PM

    I tend to think of it in terms of conceptual web, to give concepts some geography. If you take any particular piece of knowledge given on its own, such as a mathematical equation or foreign political policy, then the thing is isolated and floats in abstract space. This is often when people consider things difficult to comprehend. The gathering of knowledge creates more of these isolated nodes in that sea of randomness and ether. Socialization, or immersion in a broad subjects method of analysis, begins to create strands of webbing that connects these nodes in ways that they start to have meaning by their relative position to the other nodes. This process spins a Web of Context that is the definition of understanding. This can be built without awareness, such as when one is young and they take a math class and it seems difficult, but when they come back after a summer recess it seems obvious. Which brings me to why I think the article is interesting. The definition of simple, or complex in this example is just a blatant demonstration of how developed and what quantity of webbed connections are needed to have contextual, inherent, understanding of something. So to describe something as ‘obvious’ is, as the quote Cowen used referred to abstraction, to say that the web built around it is dense so that that particular node is well integrated into the superstructure. I completely agree that it is very necessary to question oneself and their Web of Context to see how the geography of that web might influence their perception of a certain node. I know this is kind of dumb obvious stuff said in a different way but its the way that worked for me to think of it.


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