Simplicity and complexity

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

Juvenile ospreyWhen a friend recently quoted this to me, it stopped me in my tracks. I’m one of those people who likes to counter complexity with common sense. If a problem seems too complex, it means you need to shift your way of looking at it. If you can change the paradigm, you will see the answer.

However, the current political arena shows us how dangerous over-simplification can be. Is global warming difficult to solve? Just deny its existence, and the problem disappears! Is Europe having trouble coping with the stream of refugees from war-ridden countries? Send them back and explain that they’ll be fine where they came from. Does scientific evidence shake your belief that humans are the most intelligent beings on the planet? Just redefine the concept of ‘intelligence’ and we’re back on track.

Those of us who know better, wonder why people believe this obvious nonsense. But, once I admitted to myself that I, too, am guilty of the desire for clear, simple answers, I stopped shrugging my shoulders at what seemed like obvious stupidity.

Since the beginning of time, man has searched for explanations of things he didn’t understand. The only explanations that made sense were always couched in terms he could relate to. And the explanations provided comfort, defending him against the terror of an inexplicable world. And so, as Joseph Campbell relates in his epic work The Masks of God, mythology was born. And, in the great mythologies of the world cultures, both important, archetypal truths, and dangerous misconceptions were passed on from generation to generation.

The danger is hidden in the – perfectly logical – habit of defining everything we observe in terms of our own experience. What is more logical, if you haven’t discovered that the earth turns on its axis and rotates around the sun, than to believe that the sun is a shining god, resembling a human, riding his chariot through the skies during the day and sleeping at night? That way, at least you are certain that the sun will reappear after a certain time, to light up the terrifying night.

It gets more complicated when we move towards the 21st century and try to understand what we observe. These days, we have many ways of monitoring and measuring what we see. So we tend to think we can understand and explain all that we see.

Observing animal and bird behavior is a good example of what happens. Now that we have been provided with the means to observe wildlife closely 24/7, we try to understand how and why they do what they do. Sometimes purely out of curiosity, sometimes with the intention of wanting to understand how best to protect species. But do we always see what we think we see?

Observers of osprey nests, including experienced birders, have seen that the male parent of an osprey nest stays on, providing food for the young until they start on their migration south. The conclusion, made by many observers – recreational viewers and serious birders alike –, is that the parent teaches his young to fly and catch fish, and maybe even shows them the best way south. It’s the logical conclusion because that’s what a ‘good parent’ in our eyes would do.

Interestingly enough, as far back as the 1980’s, it became obvious that juvenile ospreys learn to do this all by themselves. This 1987 video of the reintroduction of ospreys to Pennsylvania shows how juveniles, with no parents around to teach them, did quite well! Some better than others, and those could have very well become the successful breeders of the next generation.

In spite of the fact that scientific evidence proved the contrary years ago, many people persist in perpetuating the myth that parent osprey teach their young.

To let go of the need to explain everything in terms we can relate to, terms that are clear, simple, and easy to understand, we have to learn to stand in wonder at what we don’t understand. Even when it seems to threaten all that we believe to be true.

There are those who tend to simplify by turning everything into a myth. ‘If I can imagine it, it may be true.’  I’m often guilty of this kind of simplification. There are those who simplify by saying, ‘If it can be explained in rational, verifiable terms I can understand, it’s true.’ This is a fallacy in the other direction. We must face the fact: we’re not capable of understanding everything, nor are we capable of solving all the problems we face. It’s terrifying but true. If people tell you differently, be suspicious of their motives.


  1. Wonderful blog, Maddi! Very wise words!

  2. Mary-Lou Gillette

    Dear Maddi,
    I love your words, “…we have to learn to stand in wonder at what we don’t understand.” So true!

Leave a Reply