Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Life Is Complicated

Sometimes I despair of people's desire for very simple solutions to complicated problems.  Life is complicated, human behavior is complicated and the causes for many phenomena are myriad and interacting.  Yet what most people want are the kinds of explanations which can be made into television soundbites or which can be understood immediately by a person who has no training in the field.

Hence the popularity of, say,  evolutionary psychology where my guesses about the past are as good as your guesses about the past, and neither one of us needs actual data from that imaginary past!  We can just make up simple explanations.  That's partly why those theories apply to so many.  Why they apply to misogynists goes without saying.

Take that Search For Simple Answers to politics and you get Ron Paul believing in some weird god of free markets who will take care of everything for him.  He's not the only politician or public person who loves Simple-But-Wrong-Answers, and they are not all on the right side of the political aisle.  But that search for simplicity appears to be almost universal.  And very wrong.

I've been following the obesity debates and the same thing is going on there:  The Search For One Cause.  It's much more likely that the causes are many and that they, once again, interact, though I'm willing to bet quite a lot that the most important part of that puzzle is some change in the practices of the food industry, sometime before 1980s.  Other causes do, however, also exist.  But the change in extreme obesity levels, in particular, was too fast to be caused purely by lifestyle changes and the shape of obesity itself looks to me to have changed as well.  Fat deposits on the sides, even in an otherwise thin person, for instance.

The obesity debate is also interesting in revealing that unpleasant moralizing side of Americans (and probably people in general).  If only we all had enough willpower we'd all be slim and supple!  This turns the focus to purely individual solutions, purely individual failings and leaves the societal changes and frameworks unaffected.   Never mind that the food industry advertises soft drinks all the time!  Never mind that exercise has been cut in schools, that fears of pederasts make middle-class parents keep their children indoors and that the environment really is too dangerous for poor children to play outside.  Never mind that healthy food is expensive and bad food is cheap.  It's all about willpower and even that is assumed to be something you can acquire if you are good enough.

OK, that aside was more like a rant.  It's a hot day here at Snakepit Inc..

The Search For Simple Answers often has false duality built into it.  If the choices for an explanation are apples or bananas we tend to accept the initial setup and vote for either apples or bananas.  But what if the cause is in both?  Or in neither?   Public political debates are usually set up in those falsely dualistic terms and any attempt to explain that things are more complicated becomes inaudible.  For some weird reason.

Then take the reductio ad absurdum.  This is a common trick in political debates:  All liberals want to live off the government so that only conservatives end up working hard and paying all taxes.   All feminists want to kill unborn babies.

Substitute your own reverse argument for that one.  Then note how common such arguments are in political squabbling.  There's no good way of responding to those arguments, by the way, not because they were true (they are not) but because the debate would deteriorate into addressing an absurd argument.  Their point is not to present facts but to express loathing or hatred of the political opposition, and they work for that purpose.

The soundbite mode of public conversation makes things much worse, much more focused on short emotional comments.  Think of Twitter or television programs.  Television, in particular, may warp our understanding more than it aids it, given the short amount of time one has for presenting complex issues.  The one with the funniest soundbite wins!