Clear, Simple…and Wrong

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong
H. L. Mencken

We live in a world of complex problems. And – increasingly – we long for simple solutions to those problems. Brexit was a simple answer to a complex problem. Trump’s border wall is a simple answer to a complex problem. The current wave of populism is being driven by the desire for simple answers to complex problems.

But, like H.L. Mencken said…all those answers are wrong.

Even philosophers – who are a pretty complex breed – have embraced the principle of simplicity. William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan friar who studied logic, wrote “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praetor necessitate.” This translates as “More things should not be used than are necessary.” It has since been called “Occam’s Razor.” In scientific research, it’s known as the principle of parsimony.

But Occam’s Razor illustrates a short coming of humans. We will look for the simplest solution even if it isn’t the right solution. We forget the “are necessary” part of the principle. The Wikipedia entry for Occam’s Razor includes this caveat, “Occam’s razor only applies when the simple explanation and complex explanation both work equally well. If a more complex explanation does a better job than a simpler one, then you should use the complex explanation.”

This introduces a problem for humans. Simple answers are usually easier for us.  People can grasp them easier.  Given a choice between complex and simple, we almost always default to the simple. For most of our history, this has not been a bad strategy. When all the factors the determine our likelihood to survive are proximate and intending to eat you, simple and fast is almost always the right bet.

But then we humans went and built a complex world. We started connecting things together into extended networks. We exponentially introduced dependencies. Through our ingenuity, we transformed our environments and, in the process, made complexity the rule rather than the exception. Unfortunately, that our brains didn’t keep up. They still operate as if our biggest concerns were to find food and to avoid becoming food.

Our brains are causal inference machines. We assign cause and effect without bothering to determine if we are right.  We are hardwired to go for simple answers. When the world was a pretty simple place, the payoff for cognitively crunching complex questions wasn’t worth it. But that’s no longer the case. And when we mistake correlation for causation, the consequences can be tragic.

Let’s go back to the example of Trump’s Wall. I don’t question that illegal (or legal, for that matter) immigration causes pressures in a society. That’s perfectly natural, no matter where those immigrants are coming from. But it’s also a dynamic and complex problem. There are a myriad of interleaved and inter-dependent factors underlying the visible issue. If we don’t take the time to understand those dynamics of complexity, a simple solution – like a wall – could unleash forces that have drastic and unintended consequences. Even worse, thanks to the nature of complexity, those consequences can be amplified throughout a network.

Simple answers can also provide a false hope that keeps us from digging deeper for the true nature of the problem. It lets us fall into the trap of “one and done” thinking. Why hurt our heads thinking about complex issues when we can put a checkmark beside an item on our to do list and move on to the next one?

According to Ian McKenzie, this predilection for simplicity is also rotting away the creative core of advertising. In an essay he posted on Medium, he points to a backlash against Digital because of its complexity, “Digital is complex. And because the simplicity bias says complicated is bad, digital and data are bad by association. And this can cause smart people trained in traditional thinking to avoid or tamp down digital ideas and tactics because they appear to be at odds with the simplicity dogma.”

Like it or not, we ignore complexity at our peril. As David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems warned, “There is only one Earth and we shall never improve it by acting as if life upon it were simple. Complex systems will not allow it.”


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