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August 15th, 2007 · 26 Comments

You’ve probably seen this happen—or, if you’re less lucky, been the person it happened to. A group of people are standing around discussing some topic where either expertise or native intelligence make them all pretty conversant on the subject. Suddenly, one person pipes up with what he clearly thinks is a profound insight, an important observation. The others smile awkwardly, perhaps exchanging quick meaningful looks, and attempt to steer the conversation elsewhere. In the most embarrassing cases, the person who offered the observation is convinced that the full import of his insight can’t have been understood, and insists upon pressing it again and again. What’s actually happened, though, is that the person has outed himself as desperately behind the curve by offering the very opposite of an insight: some utterly elementary point that everyone else had taken for granted as a premise of the conversation, and indeed, one too obvious to be worth stating among (so they had thought) other reasonably bright and informed people. It’s an odd case of making oneself look bad, not by saying something wrong or false, but by saying something too clearly true. Because it simultaneously evokes “outing,” “on the outs,” and the contrast with “insight,” I decided I’d go with “outsight” as the name for this. So, formally…

outsight, n: A statement believed by the person who utters it to be an important or profound insight, but which is in fact regarded by its audience as so obvious or elementary that it reveals the speaker as hopelessly ignorant or slow-witted, at least relative to the relevant group.

Tags: Language and Literature



26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Barry // Aug 15, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Yes. However (forgive me for skewing the thread) what irks me more is when somebody utters some sophomoric comment which they think is the height of wisdom, such as ‘correlation isn’t causality’, under circumstances where it’s clear that such an elementary error is not being made. Or gets Occam’s razor wrong, thinking it means ‘the simplest explanation is correct’. I think that I seen this uttered under both the assumption that it was true, and also that it was ridiculous, so why do people use Occam’s razor?

    My final irritation is the old ‘average both sides to get the truth’, frequently dressed up as ‘both sides hate me, so I’m correct’.

  • 2 AC // Aug 15, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    While you’re at it maybe you can coin a term for those whose snobbish behavior makes it so that an “outsight” is embarrassing, some devastating signal, rather than a minor hitch in conversational flow to be frankly addressed or easily moved past. And maybe you can coin another term for those who deal with “outsights” with tact.

  • 3 Emma Zahn // Aug 15, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    I’m hoping you were the one with the outsight otherwise I would have to think your manners need some work.

  • 4 Andy R. // Aug 15, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Can you give an example of this? What is the type of comment that qualifies as an outsight?

  • 5 Greg N. // Aug 15, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    A few times at dinner I’ve been the victim of using “outsights.” Here are a few:

    “Jews control Hollywood and the banking industry.”

    “Black people sure can dance.”

    “Slavery isn’t so bad.”

    “AIDS is a punishment for sin.”

    “Evolution is a lie.”

    I felt like such an idiot when everyone else smiled awkwardly, exchanged quick meaningful looks , and attempted to steer the conversation elsewhere. It’s the last time I hang out with those pricks again.

  • 6 Jacob T. Levy // Aug 15, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    hee. Very nice.

    What would qualify would vary completely with the conversational group. “Correlation does not imply causation” is sometimes an extremely important point to make; when discussing an empirical social scientific question among people debating whether to use longitudinal analysis or an instrumental variable to try to get at causation, it’s an outsight.

    I’ve been on both sides of exchanges like the ones Julian describes, and a graceful attempt to change the subject and ignore the comment *is* the polite thing to do. It is at least rather more polite than turning to the speaker and saying, “duh.”

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Aug 15, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    I didn’t have any particular instance in mind; I’ve both seen them and made them–possibly more times than I’ve been aware of, as is often the case.

  • 8 LP // Aug 15, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    Jacob makes a good point. There are times when the conversation calls for exactly this: the statement of a basic principle that everyone present would claim is obvious, but which has in fact been ignored or abandoned somewhere in the intricacies of the debate. This is particularly true in the sciences, where sometimes the only way to brush away the wrong (but sophisticated and hip) ideas is by going back to the ‘utterly elementary,’ despite the risk of seeming ‘behind the curve.’

  • 9 Bill // Aug 15, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    I have been searching to dissent from the Rove two minutes hate recently, but unfortunately I feel my comments could be justly labeled as outsight.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Aug 15, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    I don’t think those count; the thing about an “outsight” is that it’s actually *correct*, just inappropriate.

  • 11 dan // Aug 15, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    is it too late for me to nominate “unsight” instead?

  • 12 Jacob T. Levy // Aug 15, 2007 at 8:32 pm

    I think Greg was making with the funny.

  • 13 Greg N. // Aug 15, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Black people can’t dance? Jews don’t control the banking industry? Someone’s been drinkin’ the kool-aid, and his initials are “JS”.

  • 14 Julian Sanchez // Aug 15, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    D’oh! Case in point! Sorry.

  • 15 Steve French // Aug 16, 2007 at 1:00 am

    I love it. I’ve added it to the Jargon Database here


  • 16 Chris // Aug 16, 2007 at 10:54 am

    Is an outslight what happens to those who deliver outsights?

  • 17 Neil the Ethical Werewolf // Aug 16, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    I like how it gives you “outsightful”.

  • 18 Art A Layman // Aug 18, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    Oh my! Have I ever been guilty of “outsights”. Of course it generally is because my fellow debaters ain’t real bright.

    I do think you have to separate the two groups Mr. Sanchez includes in his analysis. If you are truly among “experts” in a particular subject matter then a statement of the obvious might very well be inappropriate. There are many retorts however that can assuage the situation and let the discussion continue. Alas, often “experts” lack the social graces to employ these kinds of retorts. Or are either too pretentious or egocentric to consider discretion as the better part of valor.

    In the more normative setting, where the discussers are relying on “native intelligence” (often an oxymoron) or perhaps are all just well read on events, the “outsight” occurrence perhaps might even be necessary.

    I love to argue, debate, call it what you will, and frequently involve myself in the hot topics of economics, politics, sex or religion. It is immaterial that I enjoy pontificating as well. Anyway, I often find that today’s politics has invaded not only the dialogue but the thought processes of many of us. Often in discussions I hear “sound bites” as arguments. They are usually offered as if they are a summation of a universal truth that everyone should know (could these be “outsights”?). Example: “Saddam was a bad man, therefore it was necessary and important for us to take him out”. This statement does nothing to explore all the implications of “taking him out”. In this instance it might be necessary to state obvious facts to attempt to build a response that both counters the “sound bite” and hopefully expands the dialogue.

    My point is that we have become a nation of shorthanders. It is so much easier to spout the seemingly acceptable slogan as a serious discussion point rather than invoke the laborious process of thinking about what you want to say and formulating a sound logical basis for your viewpoint.

    I fear I will be left with, “suffering fools gladly”.

  • 19 Swimmy // Aug 19, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    I nominate all instances of, “There’s a difference between legal and illegal immigration” as outsight. Yes, there is a difference, and we have been discussing the validity of that distinction. Thank you for your outsight.

  • 20 Alan Light // May 16, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    I once took a class on Wittgenstein in which I felt hopelessly ignorant. Then, each of us took turns teaching the class for one lecture, and in desperation I simply talked about some of Wittgenstein’s points that should be obvious to a ten year old. In other words, I would have considered them outsights (a lovely word). Afterwards, several classmates complimented me on the lecture and said my earlier silence in class had led them to wonder if I understood Wittgenstein, but now they saw that I had an excellent understanding of Wittgenstein.

    This reinforced my belief that most philosophy is simple ideas badly expressed so as to make them seem more insightful than they are. Such cases make it difficult to know when an outsight is necessary, and when it is gauche.

    However, I have seen many clearer cases of outsights. For example, stupid people who have suddenly had the epiphany that for speakers of a foreign language, that language is not foreign. “And I had thought they just learned Spanish so they could talk without me understanding what they said!”

  • 21 Michel Rouzic // Feb 19, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Interesting, I googled “outsight” after wondering if that’s what an outsider’s insight would be called (and found your page). By outsider insight I mean something that insiders do not realise about themselves that the “insight” of an outsider can reveal to them. For example that could be a foreigner being struck by the oddity of something taken within the observed society as normal and natural, and by revealing that to insiders of this society they would benefit from the insight about themselves, that insight from the outside.

    I like your definition though, it sounds more dickish and elitist. It’s quite similar in meaning to “Thanks Captain Obvious”, isn’t it?

  • 22 Ross // Feb 13, 2010 at 4:46 am

    Hello, I submitted this to StumbleUpon. I really liked it. I discovered my life calling tonight and you prevented me from taking outsight from a person I was really asking for insight from but was going to say outsight because of their out sider status.. I’ll try to check more out later.

  • 23 walter gremillion // Aug 16, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    I have an example, every physicist knows that the universe is of a wave nature, Plato, Newton, Einstein UNDERSTOOD this. Yet physicists continue to describe the universe in euclician terms. This is fine if you’re trying to build a bridge but totally inadequate if you’re trying to understand the nature of the universe. Pointing this out to a physicist is an an “outsight”, an elementary and fundamental point that has been overlooked in the discussion. It’s what I call the aristotelian brain fart. Most of the people in this thread are idiots, (used in the clinical sense.) excepting lj and one other. Don’t take umbrage, you’re in good company. most people are idiots.

  • 24 ゴヤール // Jan 20, 2012 at 2:26 am

    ementary and fundamental point that has been overlooked in the discussion. It’s what I call the aristotelian brain fart. Most of the people in this thread are idiot

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  • 26 gwern // Feb 25, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Walter: that actually reminds me of a Feynman quote, which could be seen as describing outsights:

    “Somebody says, ‘You know, you people always say that space is continuous. How do you know when you get to a small enough dimension that there really are enough points in between, that it isn’t just a lot of dots separated by little distances?’
    Or they say, ‘You know those quantum mechanical amplitudes you told me about, they’re so complicated and absurd, what makes you think those are right? Maybe they are not right.’
    Such remarks are obvious and are perfectly clear to anybody who is working on this problem. It does not do any good to point this out.”

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