Simple Answers and Adequate Maps

On a path

On a clear path, a clear direction may be good. In life, misleading.

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

What do you need to live well? More money.
What does the economy need to work for us all? Growth.
Why does education fail? Bad teachers.
Where is the grass greener? On the other side.
Why aren’t we addressing climate change? Political will. 

We seem to have a natural tendency to focus on single things and simple answers.

They may change sometimes, and thus we alternatively (and sometimes, alternately) blame our genes, our parents, our childhood, our willpower or our situations for whatever is going wrong in our lives.
We suggest that the stupid things we do are only because of the situations we found ourselves in, and we argue that other’s bad deeds arose out of their equally imperfect characters.

On a path
On a clear path, a clear direction may be good. In life, misleading.

We look at the problems in the world in a similar way, finding a problem and looking for *the* answer. Human population numbers are growing, people demand more and richer food – agricultural output has to rise. The amount of food produced has risen, so let’s just continue what we have been doing. Seems a clear-enough path, right?

These certainties are really shortcuts in our thinking, simple ideas that turn us ourselves into simpletons.

There is much need for people who dare to suggest answers rather than just proclaim the insecurity of it all – but at the same time, most of the answers we are being given are “simplets” like those above, which do not adequately represent reality.
They tend to sound good, they easily rally followers (especially in the way that they are good to believe, putting most of the blame somewhere else, and thus requiring little change of, or even just thought about, one’s own life and responsibility). The simpler and more divisive they get, the easier they garner the support of those who believe them in their supposedly righteous struggle with those who believe the opposite.

We can find them everywhere.

From economics, where it’s all about GDP, to personal health, where it’s all about weight or body mass index.
From life satisfaction, where it’s often all about relative income, to the fullness of life, which seems to be getting measured not in experiences and stories (which would actually count for something) or in positive influence, but simply in years of life. Just look at all the people who “died too young,” as if that said anything about the life they had in their years.

“It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” – Not Abraham Lincoln

Of course, it’s difficult to address things differently. How do you compare things, how do you even (scientifically, appropriately) see if anything is changing for the better or the worse, if not by finding numbers for it and constructing better methodologies around those numbers?

The scientific approach is not the problem, though. We do need statistics; even in our own lives, they can provide insights we wouldn’t otherwise get.

The problem is when we get so hung up on certain numbers and certain answers – the weight shown on the bathroom scale, the amount on the paycheck, the percent rise or fall of GDP – we forget to consider if they even really mean what we think they do and fail to look for the actual causes and consequences of the better we should aim for and the bad we need to try and avoid.

Such ecological thinking, however, is what we really need. Learning to think like a tree, simple but reaching towards the sun, we can find and use helpful synergies, the ‘multiply better,’ through which we will create good lives and better futures.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Related articles