Sunday, August 05, 2007

Complicated Things

Human beings often prefer simple narratives to complicated facts. This drive is actually part of our intelligence, our search to explain things and see unifying ideas. But it becomes irritating when people attempt to impose their narrative, at the expense of inconvenient facts.

Whenever I read a newspaper article about events of which I have more detailed knowledge, I am always distressed at the oversimplification. In attempting to get across a single idea, often with a covert advocacy behind it, qualifiers, uncertainties, and contradictions are left out. I find myself thinking uh, that's sort of true, but we wouldn't put it that way. Yet I read the next article with my guard mostly down, assuming that I am learning something pretty nearly true. I neglect what I know about newspaper (magazine, internet) stories - that they are oversimplified - because I desire that oversimplification, so that I might pack the new information into my existing cupboards efficiently.

It's not hard to see that this can be dangerous when applied to complicated events, such as, oh, real life. The climate, the war, our health care, the economy, foreign policy - all of these are not only complicated, but necessarily complicated to the point of uncertainty and ambiguity. The Surge Is Working/Not Working. Compared to what? As measured by what? Are we gaining nothing? Losing nothing? What is our assessment based on?

It is a favorite caution of mine that every action in complicated situations is subject to risk/benefit, or cost/benefit analyses. A simple answer is bound to be essentially wrong.

I have been trying to organise this into a coherent series of essays, and am more muddled than when I started. Michael Crichton, however, says it much more lucidly in this speech. You can start there, and we'll go on to discuss the whole thing later.

(HT: Dave at Neco Draconis)


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the complexity column. We think we are so smart (well, some of us do), and it turns out that we're not nearly as bright as we thought. Often, the crisis of the moment, is not nearly as bad/assured/unfixable as we are told. Sometimes, things are very different than they seem.

Again, thanks for this and for all your writings. Good stuff.

jlbussey said...

Excellent speech! Thanks for posting about it.