Tuesday, December 22, 2015

We Look For Complex Answers

As comedian Bill Burr put it, the difference between driving on the road and the sidewalk is a simple flick of the wrist.


We always look for grand explanations for simple things in life, when in reality, the explanations are usually very pedestrian (pardon the unintentional pun).  And maybe this is why people engage in conspiracy theories - the mundane explanations of the horrific things that happen in real life are not enough to satisfy us.

Recently, a lady drove up on the sidewalk and killed at least one person and injured dozens of others.   The reason for this slaughter (apparently) was that she was depressed over a recent breakup with her boyfriend and was homeless and living in her car.   Not a very compelling reason.

So within minutes, people started spreading conspiracy theories.  "She was yelling 'Allah Akbar!' as she drove!   She was a Muslim Terrorist!" some would say.   Because that makes more sense for a horrific event.   It is a more compelling reason than "I was depressed".

And yet, events generated by Muslim Terrorism, such as 9/11, are deemed by some to be grand conspiracies, involving thousands of people and government agencies all pulling the wool over our eyes.  Why?  Because the simple explanation of a dozen or so men and a few thousand dollars just isn't sufficiently worthy of such a major disaster.   We cannot accept mundane explanations for horrific events.

Or take the attack in San Bernadino.   Two unhinged people, radicalized online, acting independently, decide to shoot up a Christmas party, largely based on a personal beef that one of them had with a co-worker.   Not a very compelling story.  They had to be part of an ISIS sleeper cell, right?   Well, no.  Just crazy people with guns, once again.

And so on down the line.  The elementary school shootings in Connecticut?   The mundane explanation of a crazy young man with access to guns simply isn't sufficient for such a horrific event.   So people block it all out by denying it ever happenedGrand events should have grand explanations.

Even the Kennedy assassination falls into this pattern.   The idea that one crazy guy with a rifle could take out a President - unbelievable!   But indeed plausible.  But the more complicated the conspiracy theory, the more it seems "worthy" of such a dramatic world-changing event.
"Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected." --Occam's Razor
But of course, this trend is hardly new.  William Ockham, in the 13th Century addressed the same thorny problem.   And his solution was simple in its elegance.   Whenever you have more than one explanation for an event, the simplest answer is more often than not the correct one.   Friar Ockham realized back then that people tended to do the opposite - engage in flights of fancy, rather than look for simple answers.

In our own lives, of course, we tend to do the same.   We want to find complex answers to simple problems.   We can "get ahead" in life through cash-back bonuses and clipping coupons.  That has to be the answer, because it is complicated.  The simple answer of "spend less" seems too simple.

If you want to lose weight you have to consume fewer calories and that is the simple and correct answer.   People prefer, however, complicated answers, such as "not eating this" or "always eating that" or "eat all you want, so long as you...." - because those are complicated answers that are also appealing on a personal level.   And like the cash-back bonuses and coupon clipping, they do not work.

This is not to say the simplest answer is always the correct one, only that it is often far more likely to be correct.   The only glaring exception seems to be in politics, where "if we just do one thing..." always seems to be the wrong answer (e.g., throw out immigrants, bomb Iran, whatever).  Our political problems are often more complex than that.   Perhaps a corollary to Occam's Razor is to distrust any answer that is simpler than the question posed.

But most times the simplest explanation is the correct one.  It may not be sexy or compelling, but there you have it.

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