Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

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Thinking like a Simpleton



Bill-Frayer-2010Thoreau admonished us to “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” Of course, he was referring to disencumbering our lives with fewer material possessions. Many of us did this when we chose to live in Mexico. Living a more simple life, after a lifetime of working to accumulate possessions, is invigorating and satisfying. But simplification, in another sense, is not so helpful.

I am referring to the tendency we have to take complex ideas and make them simpler. Such simplification does have a place. When we explain complex ideas to children, we tend to simplify them so they can understand. Teachers simplify technical processes at first to help the students grasp the concepts.  But when we simplify a complex subject too much, we are unable to see all its aspects and problems clearly. This is a thinking error referred to as oversimplification.

Let me be honest. We all have a tendency to look for simple solutions to complex problems. H.L. Menken, and I am paraphrasing here, pointed out that for every problem there is a simple answer, and it is wrong! Complex problems have complex origins and usually require multifaceted analysis and solutions. But we don’t like this. We prefer simple, elegant answers. We reward our politicians who give short, sound-bite answers. Politicians who try to speak truthfully and give more complex, nuanced answers are ridiculed as evasive or obfuscatory.

Both liberal and conservative politicians have their ultra-simple solutions to placate their base.  Conservatives talk blithely about the power of the free market, lower taxes, and hard work. Experience has taught us that the free market needs regulation, lower taxes do not magically create economic prosperity, and many working poor work very hard but still require some assistance from the government. On the left, we liberals have our own set of canards. We frequently appeal to the oversimplified notion that taking from the rich would solve our economic problems. Or that strict environmental protection should take precedence over jobs. Although I agree, to some degree with both of these notions, they are, In fact, oversimplifications. Taxation and environmental protection are both very complex subjects.  Oversimplifying them could cause unintended consequences. 

And this is the crux of the problem. As humans, we prefer the easy way out. Oversimplifying complex problems is easier than considering all the factors at play in a particular problem. But solutions generated through overly simplistic thinking rarely work. A while ago, I wrote about the suppression of critical thinking in Texas. In many ways, however, critical thinking is being suppressed by politicians and the media everywhere.  We need to be able to think critically about complex ideas.  We need to generate adequate ways to address our economic, social and environmental problems.  If we don’t, we may just end up like many of the societies Jared Diamond discusses in his best-selling book: Collapse. 

So, look at your own ideas and political beliefs. To what degree are they a bit oversimplified? And be honest!



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