Nerds Delight Continues: The Secret Science Club

For weeks I’ve been on the Secret Science Club mailing list in nerdy anticipation of their next event and my introduction to the underground awesomeculture I always suspected somewhere… like a spectacular back-room-wood-and-leather-barn-like-Brooklyn-bar-space.

Well, yesterday I braved the hailstorm (via the southbound R train) and sure enough I found them… lined up down the street outside of The Bell House, nerd flags waving in the post torrential downpour winds, just beside mine.

Last night Featured Duncan Watts, mathematical sociologist, social network expert, and author of Everything Is Obvious (*Once You Know the Answer). Watts, who also currently conducts research for Microsoft, challenged our societal default to common sense, reacquainting us with the scientific method and a strong reminder for skepticism– we should question everything, and test over and over again until the data proves us (theory) right.

While much of Watts’ presentation hit chords of personal bias– from his own research of Yahoo’s dating site preferences (apparently what users say they want v. what they actually want proves Avenue Q’s theory that “everyone’s a little bit racist) to questioning leadership in the workplace– do we inflate the credentials of the best looking man in the room? Was George Washington the default pundit for our Nation’s forefathers because he was always the tallest guy in the room?

Interesting things to consider (from Watts):

-“We can skip from day to day and observation to observation, perpetually replacing the chaos of reality with the soothing fiction of our explanations”

-Watts’ theory centers around the idea that we draw lots of conclusions about factors that led up to an event… after the event. And that it would be just as easy to draw conclusions why the OPPOSITE outcome had come true. (Example: reasons why the financial crisis happened… if the economy were booming, we could have also found reasons pointing to why).

-Avoid “halos” or generalizing people with a certain characteristic. Just because most of the senior leaders at your company are tall, handsome men in suits, don’t assume someone tall in a suit has leadership qualities.

-Do the hard work– don’t make assumptions based upon one outcome. If you don’t have the benefit of results/data from many outcomes, build strategies that don’t depend upon accurate predictions– like reacting quickly (retailer Zara, for example, demos small runs of each style in-store, and then mass produces the ones that sell most successfully).

The New York Times review of Watt’s book summarizes well: “Common sense is a kind of bespoke make-believe, and we can no more use it to scientifically explain the workings of the social world than we can use a hammer to understand mollusks.” Pick up his book here.

Whether you support or disagree with Watts’ contention of common sense, I’m of the camp that it is always worth asking ourselves the question (and working toward truth).

…see you at next month’s  Secret Science Club!

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