It Just Doesn’t Work That Way

I’ll wager that most of you who have elementary-age children have been asked the same question during these difficult economic times: “Why don’t they just print more money?” Depending on the child’s grasp of economics, you may have been able to explain the phenomenon of runaway inflation, but some of you probably resorted to some variant of “It just doesn’t work that way.” This response highlights a common problem: Often a proposed solution is simple and obvious and the reasons it doesn’t work are subtle and complex.

For instance, when I was in high school, I knew a parent who was convinced that early-morning classes would be no problem if teenagers would just go to bed earlier. Having done a bit of reading on sleep psychology, I tried to explain about REM cycles and such, only to be met with the same repeated response: “Just go to bed earlier!” It seems so simple. Sleep psychology is a subjective and poorly-understood field, so it’s hard to make absolute statements about why this strategy is flawed, but if you start school at seven, teenagers will sleep through their first couple of classes. Even the ones who went to bed earlier.

If you’ve encountered this problem with middle management, you know that the consequences can be much more serious than a child’s hampered understanding of currency. A boss schooled in business supervising a technical team schooled in science or engineering is a recipe for trouble. You can’t deliver ultimata to your boss. It’s likely that he or she will fall within the level of knowledge that spots the simple solution but not the complex problems with it; if you fail at explaining the latter, you may end up wasting a lot of time and effort in service to the former, or being labeled a poor employee for your inability to deliver on an unworkable idea.

The above are prescriptive examples–where a course of action is proposed–but the problem can also crop up descriptively, when an explanation for a phenomenon is proposed. The entire intelligent design/creationism movement is one big example. Every tenet, from start to finish, seems totally sensible and reasonable to a layperson and only reveals its critical flaws to someone with a strong understanding of the field. These theories may be egregiously stupid (dinosaurs died because they couldn’t outrun the Flood), generally implausible (carbon dating doesn’t work), or mildly compelling (scientists’ prejudices keep them from incorporating God into the scientific method), but they share the commonality that they simply don’t work, period.

I find the creation/evolution debate to be enormously uncompelling. However, I am interested–mostly out of a sense of scientific necessity–in why people hold untrue beliefs even in the face of an expert on the topic trying patiently to explain why the belief doesn’t work. Remember this discussion? Steamed ID proponents fumed, “What, are you saying I’m not smart enough to understand this stuff?” In answer to which…yes! You do not understand this stuff. If you did, you would not have put forth such an unworkable theory in the first place. As to whether you could ever be capable of understanding, I can’t speculate, because to gain understanding you’d have to allow yourself to be taught by people who know more, which you won’t allow because you aren’t willing to admit that there’s more to know.

There is more to know.  There is always more to know.  But here’s the insidious part of this problem: When you’ve struck upon a simple, elegant solution, it doesn’t appear that there’s more to know.  Your answer explains everything (everything you’re aware of, that is).  It appeals to Ockham’s Razor.  It wraps everything up so neatly that there is nothing left to figure out and explains it so simply that a child could understand it.  All this would be beautiful if not for that basic difficulty that it’s wrong.  But all you have to do is ignore the expert, convince yourself that he or she doesn’t really know more than you, and that difficulty goes away.

I think that the vast majority of the populace falls into the category that can understand a simple solution but not the complex reason it doesn’t work on most topics.  For me, one such area is computer programming, in which I’ve only dabbled.  I often figure out a seemingly-brilliant way to do what I want: “That’s it!  I just need to use a jagged array!”  As I work out the details, the idea that it might not actually work seems preposterous.  Fortunately, I am beholden to the compiler, an authority that cannot be subverted.  Thus I am forced to face the truth that my plan won’t work.

In most areas, though, it’s easy to ignore the experts.  It’s easy to write them off as pretentious fools for not accepting a perfectly simple explanation.  One may not even realize that anything is being written off, and in most cases, a strong majority will agree with you.  But a majority of foolishness is still foolishness, and makes no more sense than getting out of financial trouble by printing more money.

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One response to “It Just Doesn’t Work That Way

  1. I think you’d find this article interesting: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128490874 It focuses on politics, but gets into why people cling to false beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

    Key quote:

    CONAN: And when facts are readily available, why are they not enough to change people’s minds?

    Mr. NYHAN: Well, the problem is, you know, as human beings, we want to believe, you know, the things that we already believe. And so when you hear some information that contradicts your pre-existing views, unfortunately, what we tend to do is think of why we believed those things in the first place.

    And, you know, so when, you know, we get these corrections, we tend to say I’m right, and I’m going to stick with my view. And the thing that my research, which is with Jason Reifler at Georgia State University, found is that in some cases, that corrective information can actually make the problem worse.

    So some people who read Dana’s article about immigration may actually have come away from it more strongly committed to the belief that crime has gone up along the border.

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