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GET REAL: Keep it simple, stupid


GET REAL: Keep it simple, stupid

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WE LIVE IN simple yet complex times. Scientific knowledge, business and social systems have increased in complexity. At the same time, science and business thrive on making life as simple for us as possible. 

Marketers think hard to come up with products and services that make life easier and relieve us from the burden of thinking. From the convenience of frozen dinners, to the timer on your oven, and self-driving vehicles, we are trying to make the world idiot-proof. In the process, we could all become idiots. 

One-time eating was a matter of carefully planning and executing a hunt or knowing the best places to find non-poisonous, wild vegetables. Nowadays, many of us will go hungry if Cheffetucky is closed. Modern technology and entrepreneurship, while making life easier for us, can turn us into dependent simpletons. 

Entertainment usually presents simplified versions of reality. The most popular movies and games give us good guys and bad guys. In sports we have our team and the other team. These simple binary models make their way into how we think about the world. 

The brain is an energy-saving machine. It takes energy to process complex things. If it can simplify an issue it will. It’s easier to think, “Islam, bad, Christianity, good,” than it is to say, “Christian societies and Islamic societies have both, at various points in history, been forces of great destruction and are constantly evolving to meet the demands of the time, and find ways to survive and coexist.” If I simply say I am a B or I am a D, I don’t have to use any energy working my brain when election time comes around. I already know where to put my X. 

Things can be as simple or as complex as we want them to be. The landscape of Northern Canada where the Eskimos live is as simple a landscape as there is on Earth. A blanket of snow runs right across the horizon. To Caribbean eyes it is simply white. 

The Eskimos, however, are said to have around 50 words for snow. To somebody from a land of sea and sun, the subtle differences between snow that is falling softly and snow that is good for sledding may be hard to see. We may be inclined to ask “Wuh all ain snow?” To an Eskimo, expert in the science of Snowology, appreciating those differences may be a matter of life or death. 

When you really know something it can become simpler and more complex at the same time. More complex, in that you can now see all the little working parts; more simple in the sense that things that used to confuse you become clear. When you first start learning to drive, accelerating, braking, balancing the clutch, steering and shifting gears all at the same time can seem like rocket science. Once you learn how, it all comes together. 

Driving becomes so simple to an experienced driver that most experienced drivers will make horrible driving instructors. We tend to forget what it was like to not know what we know. We can’t understand why the learner is driving so slowly. After all, driving is so simple. But even rocket science can be simple to a rocket scientist. 

A person with expertise and experience who forgets what it was like before they knew what they knew or could do what they do, is said to be suffering from expert bias. You don’t have to be a driving instructor or rocket scientist to fall victim to expert bias. Watch an adult who is not a skilled or talented teacher try to teach simple mathematics to a child. It can be a horribly frustrating experience for the adult and the child. The adult may have learned to add, subtract and divide so long ago that he has forgotten how complex it can be for someone trying to grasp the concepts for the first time. 

A little learning is a dangerous thing. A person suffering from expert bias, who is not really a high-level expert, can think they know when they don’t. They may certainly not know enough to explain clearly to someone who does not know at all. They may be a danger to themselves and the person they are trying to instruct. Imagine going on a trek across the snowy wilderness of Northern Canada guided by someone who has had a few skiing lessons. No thanks. Give me an Eskimo guide please. 

Almost everyone in society today has a little learning; sometimes not enough to know how much we do not know. Add to that our tendency to think in simplistic terms due to the simplifying influence of marketing, entertainment and technology and the result is an epidemic of psuedo-expert bias. 

A little learning often leads one to arrogantly jump to conclusions and rush to judgement. But people, society and culture are complex and dynamic systems. The origins of social issues are usually deep. They may be more complex than rocket science. Working out solutions calls for depth of understanding. 

With limited knowledge of history, sociological and psychological factors, our understanding of the world is largely limited to our lifespan and life experience. We will tend to reduce social issues to the level of our understanding; we have to, in order to manage daily living, make decisions and carry on. 

The acronym KISS stands for “Keep it simple, stupid.”  It is a warning against getting overly fancy with your thinking, overcomplicating issues and confusing yourself. We do the best we can with the information and experience we have. If we remember that there are still things yet to learn and understand, we are open to growth. Keeping it simple will then help us to move forward, but will not make us stupid in the process. 

May those with true expertise in whatever area have the patience and skill to bring us all along. May we have the patience and humility to reach.


Adrian Green is a creative communications specialist. 
Email [email protected]