UNCOMMON COMMON SENSE
By Bill Frayer
It’s Really Very Simple…Or Is It?
There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. (H. L. Mencken Prejudices: Second Series, 1920)
As humans, the only animals with the ability to reason on a high level, we are perpetually trying to figure things out. We want to know why things are as they are. We want to know why people behave as they do. When something does not work properly, we instinctively want to understand what the problem is. We have developed thinking skills to help us find these answers. The ability to use our reasoning ability has allowed us to survive and prosper. It has also allowed us to think we know more than we do and to reach incorrect conclusions. One of the most pernicious thinking errors we can make is oversimplifying.
Now, of course, it is often necessary to simplify something to make sense of it. When we conceptualize the human heart, we simply think of it as a pump which distributes oxygenated blood throughout the body. In fact, we know it is more complex than this, but at its essence, this is what the heart is.
As economists address the current economic problems, they often use simple models to help us understand what’s going on when, in fact, the actual conditions are significantly more complicated. We often simplify explanations for young children because they cannot yet understand beyond a basic level.
The danger is when we oversimplify. We intuitively want simple answers. When we find a simple answer to a complex question, we are often tempted to believe we have found the answer. Usually, as Mencken points out, we have not. Most difficult questions are indeed not simple and do not easily lend themselves to simple explanations. But we persist in deluding ourselves that simple answers exist because it is easier. It is always easier to latch onto a simple explanation. Let’s look at some examples.
One of the most common examples we encounter every day is medicine. When we encounter a medical symptom, we often like to find an immediate, easy-to-identify problem which can be easily solved. Sometimes this works. If you develop a pain in the elbow, you might attribute it to playing tennis. Take a break from tennis and your elbow may heal. Drink too much wine at dinner, and you develop a headache. The next day, when the alcohol has worked its way out of your system, your headache is gone. Simple!
Most medical problems are more complex and require a complex approach. As patients, we like to think immediately of a simple solution. A good example is medication. We often immediately think we can get a pill to solve our particular problem. “Can’t you just give me a pill, Doc?” And even if there is a pill, it’s not a magic bullet. Medications can reduce or eliminate symptoms but may cause other problems. We don’t know the long-term effects of many medications. Many medical conditions we encounter are long-term problems that must be monitored and managed. Hardly the simple fix we’re looking for.
Here in Mexico, we have access to prescription-level drugs ourselves. The tendency to oversimplify and self-medicate is strong, especially if we view medical problems as solvable by a pill. Of course, pharmacology is complex and fraught with perils. Medications interact with one another and within our body in complex ways. We can easily magnify our problems by taking the simple I’ll-just-get-a-pill approach.
Here are some other examples of oversimplification that come to mind:
1. We can solve crime by building more prisons and making punishment sure and swift.
2. We can solve the drug problem (and Mexico’s related narco-state problem) by legalizing all drugs.
3. We can overthrow a dictator in a despotic state and the people will embrace democracy so we can leave the country in relative peace.
4. We can fight any war and prevail because we have better technology.
5. We can move our lives to Mexico, learn the language, and live in paradise forever.
We like to look for simple answers because we’re human, and we often want to believe that simple solutions exist. Realizing that most problems are more complex forces us to deal with their ambiguity and look for more realistic answers.
The next several columns will be devoted to the problem of oversimplification. Next month I’ll look at our unfortunate tendency to reward those who promote oversimplified thinking.