03
Nov
09

Simplifying vs. Oversimplifying

Or

My conclusions on falsehoods

I’ve explored quite a few falsehoods to some depth recently, and I have a few very general thoughts on this matter which I would like to share.

So much of our understanding of reality is reliant upon language which does not allow for simple explanations of what is actually occurring around us. Our brains operate at the “vertebrate organism” level. We have no innate mechanisms to think in terms of geologic time, subatomic movement, or galactic dimensions. We also have no intrinsic ability to grasp long-term population genetics or ecological changes. Instead, we must use metaphors which are often mistaken to be the truth in themselves.

Humans also have a tendency to find causality and patterns when none exist. We notice images in completely random static, faces from completely different shapes, and order in piles of debris. This pattern-seeking behavior is particularly problematic when dealing with causes lacking agency.

Additionally, humans love nothing more than simple explanations. This is where the falsehoods come from. Simple explanations which make the complex issues we notice seem to make sense upon casual observation. These falsehoods in themselves are not a problem so long as the individual knows these are only metaphors and representations. Expecting a ten second summary to explain all of the research on a given topic over a period of years, decades, centuries, or (in some cases) millennia, is a requesting too much from the language. Our communicative technologies and techniques are not sufficiently developed to allow rapid transmission of this much information.

This is where the difference lies between indoctrination (classical definition) and education. Education is to lead to a conclusion, while indoctrination is to present only the conclusions with no reason for belief, the conclusions in this case being the condensation of experiential data, models, and ideologies all rolled into one. I firmly believe, for example, that it is possible to explore an idea with someone and lead them to the same conclusion as would be produced by simply presenting the preformed conclusion. The only distinction is that, if new evidence comes to light, the conclusion which one has been led to can be adapted piecewise to include the new evidence whereas without the evidence supporting the previous conclusion, it must be dismissed wholesale.

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3 Responses to “Simplifying vs. Oversimplifying”


  1. November 5, 2009 at 12:25 am

    I addressed what I call “bumper sticker thinking” some time ago dealing with the same problem in another field. Complex ideas that can require years of study reduced to mnemonic phrases, which I call “bumper stickers.” Too many people who acquire the bumper stickers think that they thereby have obtained the concept.

    My Greek language professor of many years ago stated at the beginning of our training that it is true that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” He also pointed out that it was difficult to know just how much knowledge is required to get out of danger. His point was that no matter how much of the language we learned and applied to New Testament translation our knowledge alone was not sufficient to keep us from error.

    Popularizing complex concepts from the fields of knowledge is necessary to bring the lay people on board. Bumper stickers have a place. However, there is always the danger that a little knowledge can lead some of the sheep astray. The stewards of deeper knowledge can only do their best to guide the flock.

    Unless, of course, you want to establish an intellectual tyranny.

  2. 2 Colloquy
    November 5, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    I bet a bumper sticker that simply said: “Think” would be fantastic!
    Has that been done already?

    ” So much of our understanding of reality is reliant upon language which does not allow for simple explanations of what is actually occurring around us.”

    I agree. Especially because I believe that I am a visual learner.
    (I know this isn’t what you were going for but I just had to comment)

    This is why video is so important. I don’t think there will ever be enough descriptive words to convey something accurately.

  3. 3 jaredcormier
    November 5, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Yes, videos are wonderful illustrations, but an animation or image of molecules interacting is not the same as how those molecules really interact. They can be well done, but you would have to explain the time scale, show the Brownian motion, and explain how those interactions take place (electron clouds migrating between atoms; first you’d have to explain how electrons aren’t ping-pong balls…).


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