When Simple is Just Simply Wrong

If one can easily translate the complex into the ‘simple’ – one risks reducing out the essential argument which was posed in the first place. Sometimes, simple is simply not enough, or worse is a way of faking comprehension when one does not really grasp mechanism nor seek understanding. Sometimes what is celebrated as simple, is in reality advantageously obtuse.

We have all heard the famous Richard Feynman quote “If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it.” While the principle rings with lofty enlightenment, and accordingly tugs at my heart to grant it free pass based upon its poetic conviction alone, nonetheless my mind raises an experience-based objection.  Not all things are simple of course. But more to the point, many philosophical principles reside in a state of critical irreducibility, and cannot be simplified beyond a given level of complexity, without compromising the essence of the critical path logic contained in its integral form. Many principles of philosophy for instance, require the participant to up their game, and suffer (sometimes fatally) when the principle is translated into a weaker and supposedly more understandable form. It is not that the much venerated Dr. Feynman is wrong in his statement, rather that his statement can be shown to be wrong in common circumstances, without special pleading. It is a type of organic untruth called dicto simpliciter (see below). Feynman’s simplicity apothegm also is a complex fallacy called the Wonka Golden Ticket or einfach mechanism. Later in this article you will see a list of popular Wonka Golden Ticket fallacies, in areas such as civil rights or philosophy, wherein the popular simple principle stands as a twisted and malevolent form of its original theme. It is pseudo-theory. It is an idea which is so strong in its simplicity, verisimilitude and perception, that it is installed as truth from the moment it is uttered; never vetted in its genesis, and is never allowed to be questioned again. Humans are ruled by this type of common fiat wisdom. This statement itself, ironically stands exemplary as to why ‘simple’ is not always the correct or clearest explanation. Sometimes, an effort to force simplicity constitutes nothing more than simpleton science itself.

Einfach Mechanism

An invalid null hypothesis or best explanation. An explanation, theory or idea which resolves a contention through bypassing the scientific method, then moreover is installed as truth solely by means of the apparent strength of the idea itself. Pseudo-theory which is not tested at its inception, nor is ever held to account thereafter.

This principle of skipping or short-cutting a portion of the critical logic of an irreducible concept, in the name of, or in the mistake of, simplicity we shall highlight below.

Simple or Simpleton?

If simplicity is to be defined by functional implication as ‘that which is understandable’, then one must be aware of the pitfalls entwined inside the art of conversion of the complex into its simpler form. This process is not an idempotent process. The principle can be elicited by the philosophical tenet known as translation, as formulated by materials physicist, Percy Bridgman.1

The materials physicist Percy Bridgman, commented upon the process by which we ‘translate’ abstract theories and concepts into specific experimental contexts and protocols. Calling this work of reduction and translation ‘operationalism’ – Bridgman cautioned that experimental data production is often guided by substantial presuppositions about the subject matter which arise as a part of this translation. Often raising concern about the ways in which initial questions are formulated inside a scientific context. True science is a process which revisits its methodological constructs (modes of research method) as often as it does its epistemological (knowledge) ones. Accordingly, this principle identified by Bridgman is the foundation of the philosophy which clarifies the difference between a complex understanding and its necessary components. If presuppositions are made in this very scientific process itself, are not even more risky suppositions then made in the process of translating complexity into simplicity?

When we alter a principle for clarity’s sake, just as in the case of reducing complex scientific paradigms into simpler component tests, we translate and reduce sometimes the content of that principle. We inexorably change that principle. Especially if the principle itself was delineating a subtle aspect of philosophy to begin with. The ability to make a tenet of philosophy simpler, may stand more as an indication that the translation specialist did not get the subtle nature of its critical logic to begin with. When this is done as a matter of convenience in order to make the pseudo-principle go viral, or push selected answers, this is called being advantageously obtuse.

Advantageously Obtuse (Bridgman Reduction)

/philosophy : pseudo-philosophy/ : a principle which has been translated, reduced or dumbed-down for consumption so as to appear to be a ‘simple’ version of its source principle; however, which has been compromised through such a process. Thereby making it easy to communicate among the vulnerable who fail to grasp its critical elements, and moreover to serve as an apothegm useful in enforcing specific desired conclusions. Statements such as ‘the burden of proof lies on the claimant’ or ‘the simplest explanation tends to be correct’ – stand as twisted, viral forms of their parent principles, which contend ironically, critically or completely different standards of thought.

Bridgman Point – the point at which a principle can no longer be dumbed-down any further, without sacrifice of its coherency, accuracy, salience or context.

This principle is very similar in logical constraint to Stephen Wolfram’s principle of computational irreducibility:

Computational Irreducibility

/philosophy : pseudo-philosophy : boundary/ : the idea that some systems can only be sufficiently described by fully simulating them. The only way to determine the answer to a computationally irreducible question is to perform the computation/simulation which solves for its answer. In this context, it is impossible to ascertain the future state of a CI system, without having to sufficiently model and determine all the intermediate states in between. Such process cannot be reduced or sped up through any kind of reduction (Bridgman Reduction), assumption or shortcut. To do so alters the actual model and its answer into a state of unknown, and unrealized, error.2

Simple itself, also may be less scientific. Comparatively, all things being equal, a more plural construct is more scientific precisely because it is more potentially informative than is a conforming or simple (monist) construct. It places more conjecture on the line – and takes incremental risk which a simple explanation does not.  An incrementally complex (context of plurality) construct should be studied first, under a condition of plurality, because ostensibly it is the easiest to eliminate through falsification/deduction – and therefore is more informative as compared to a ‘simple’ explanation (which is inductive/abductive inference at best).3  Fake skeptics never get this – they cling onto their one-liner’s and what is familiar (simple) – and then die, and a new generation precipitates what is known as a Kuhn-Planck paradigm shift. (see, the highly informative role of conflicting and non-corroborating evidence)

In pluralistic research, a team does not ‘test the simplest constructs first’. This is the false notion of someone who has never once assembled a reduction critical path, nor prosecuted a scientific line of inquiry. A team will test those constructs which can be potentially falsified in short order first on the critical path – which often also are complex (not complicated) in their offing. This, for three reasons: 1) falsification is a more highly informative pathway of research, 2) The added information strengthens the ability to resolve other constructs in the critical path succession, and 3) this wastes the least amount of dwell time inside a series of critical path Query Oriented Normalization question series (especially when one is under stakeholder or stockholder pressure). If your ‘skeptic’ does not know what any of these things are – tell them to shut up and sit down before they hurt themselves.

Also, please note that complex, plural and complicated (the antithesis of simple), are not the same thing. Don’t let your fake skeptic pull tricks by conflating the three or using special pleadings as to what is indeed complexity inside this context. Just because a construct adds a feature at risk under science, does not serve to make it ‘less simple’. They are not lovers of simplicity, rather they fear the inability of their mind to grasp sufficient and necessary complexity.

Let’s use a case example of ‘Occam’s Razor’ (sic). I chuckled when I first grasped the circular logic entailed in the pseudoscience version of Ockham’s Razor, ‘Occam’s Razor’, shown in the graphic to the right. Occam’s Razor, the favorite apothegm of the social skeptic, is advantageously obtuse. Not only shallow, but handy in promoting specific conclusions without merit. The principle, made famous in the movie Contact, written by Carl Sagan, offers promotion of the ‘simplest explanation’ as a pathway bearing reliable truth. Ironically Occam’s Razor itself is a flawed ‘simple’ form of Ockham’s Razor, simply because Sagan wanted a simpler version of what he failed to grasp to begin with.4 ‘Plurality should not be posited without necessity’ is not congruent in any way shape or form with ‘All things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the correct one’. In the latter definition, the participant is not looking for a simple way to understand Ockham’s Razor, rather they are looking for a simpler way to (not have to) do science – one which does not demand all the investigation, research, databasing, question asking, recursive work – and rather serves to make science itself fatally simple (or less effort). An armchair activity if you will. Many scientists reject Occam’s Razor for this very reason – it is shortcut, lazy and premature science.5

…well if there is sufficient evidence for both, then I believe both happily. And then wait for more… I mean if the experimental data doesn’t favour one of them, why should I believe the simpler one? […] I probably would because it’s easier to understand, easier for my brain to work on, but if they both show sufficient data, then either of them might be right or neither of them might be right, so I’m happy to believe both until one is disproven.

~ “Simple or Simplistic? Scientists’ Views on Occam’s Razor”, Hauke Riesch

Occam’s Razor is an example of simple gone wrong (see more here: Ethical Skepticism – Part 5 – The Real Ockham’s Razor). The principal flaws buried inside of this lazy, or worse obfuscative, approach to science resides inside two critical path fallacies relating to soundness:

Transactional Occam’s Razor Fallacy (Appeal to Ignorance)

The false contention that a challenging construct, observation or paradigm must immediately be ‘explained.’ Sidestepping of the data aggregation, question development, intelligence and testing/replication steps of the scientific method and forcing a skip right to its artificially conclusive end (final peer review by ‘Occam’s Razor’).

dicto simpliciter

When one presumes that what is true in general and/or under normal circumstances, is therefore true under all circumstances without exception.

Occam’s Razor is not simple, rather it is obtuse. Sometimes simple, is simply wrong. Other examples of apothegms, which are incorrectly derived from their parent philosophical principles through a Bridgman Reduction include:

Actual scientific principle: onus probandi – It is a general rule, that the party who alleges the affirmative of any proposition shall prove it. This includes the Null Hypothesis or any form of stand-in which is to serve in its place. In general, wherever science presumes the affirmative, it lies on the party who denies the fact, to prove the negative.6

Incorrect simple version: ‘The person claiming something is possible or has happened needs to produce evidence to refute the null hypothesis.’ ~ Rational Wiki7

Incorrect simple version: ‘The burden of proof resides on the claimant.’ ~ Common doctrine8

Actual philosophical principle: ‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.’ ~ David Hume

Incorrect simple version: ‘A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence’ ~ Steven Novella9

Actual philosophical principle: ‘For every fact F, there must be a sufficient reason why F is the case. For every x, there is a y such that y is the sufficient reason for x’ ~Gottfried Leibniz10

Incorrect simple version: ‘Everything happens for a reason.’11

Actual philosophical principle: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ ~ John Stuart Mill12

Incorrect simple version: ‘Non-aggression principle, aggression is inherently wrong. Do no harm.’ ~ Common doctrine13

Actual ethical principle: ‘It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employment agency to fail or refuse to refer for employment, or otherwise to discriminate against, any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, or to classify or refer for employment any individual on the basis of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.’ ~ Title VI of the Civil Rights Act14

Incorrect simple and academic-popular version: ‘I dare you to get on Wikipedia and play “Things white people can definitely take credit for,” it’s really hard.’ ~ Sarah Jeong, senior writer for The Verge and member of the editorial board of The New York Times; Tweet, 25 Nov 2015; Twitter Archives

Conflating Obtuseness with Simplicity of Expression and Reductionism

Now of course, reduced simple constructs bear enormous usefulness inside science, and in particular systems modeling. Physics itself is a form of systems modeling, involving the principle of reductionism. Reductionism has served the sciences well. In physics, where there are well defined laws, it is often possible to use a micro-scaled descriptive principle to derive a macroscopic model. Nuclear reactions were first modeled in this micro-to-macro fashion, before a physical one was ever achieved by mankind.15 Take for instance, the simple mathematical relationship which describes the mass to energy conversion occurring inside a fission or fusion nuclear reaction.

Simple, right? But if you really want to understand nuclear dynamics, as I did as a young undergraduate, the actual formula which models the dynamic reaction in a nuclear core runs down the chalkboard of an entire side and one half of a typical medium-sized college classroom. A sad realization I encountered one day when Professor Farazin spent the first 15 minutes of class writing that equation up on the chalkboard. A very complex equation in reality, featuring simpler components and substrates. The neutron transport dynamics and kinetics, the core shape, neutron sinks, reflection dynamics and material makeup – all play into one complex interleaving producing a given fast neutron density. This gives us the brisance, thermal release and control profile of the nuclear chain reaction.

Let’s make it clear here, that one’s ability to cite the simple principle E=mc² does not in any way qualify one to understand nor teach nuclear core dynamics. Sometimes, simple is simply not enough, or might even constitute a way of faking it, when one does not really understand what is going on.

Let’s take another example. Many of the celebrity science communicators who are pushed in front of us daily by the media, spout simple and clever sounding apothegms, yet fail to even understand the science behind these apothegms. The very same failure as on the part of those agenda spinners who created them in the first place. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a favorite whipping post for stupid statements in the name of science. When one takes physiology obtusely, and fails to understand the complex relationship between pesticides, livestock hormones and antibiotics, the human microbiome, endocrine system, metabolism, vitamin absorption, ketosis and mitochondrial damage/suppression, one can regard themselves as clever in whipping out simpleton science gems such as this:

“A Weight Loss book written by Physicists would be 1 sentence long: ‘Consume calories at a lower rate than your body burns them.'” ~ Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Had Neil DeGrasse Tyson actually invested any scientific experience/effort (the dreaded ‘complexity’) into this subject, he would know that calories-in calories-out dieting does not work, and inevitably leads to lower and lower consumption over time; finally resulting in the related chronic diseases from malnutrition which accompany this bad practice. It is simple, but it is also stupid. And you will find those who cannot distinguish between the two, to often be fascinated by the apparent brilliance of simpleness. But you see, actually investigating these constructs was not ‘simple’ enough for Neil. Neil, as all celebrity skeptics and science communicators are wont, was rent-seeking (see below).

Additionally, systems modelers recognize the critical nature of reductionism in understanding the elemental dynamics of a more complex model:

At what point does the model cease to have explanatory value having become too complex to do anything more than simulate it at a variety of parameter values and initial conditions? Often, the models that are proposed have dozens of parameters many of which may not be known for the particular system studied. Furthermore, the complexity of the models makes it difficult to study sensitivity to parameters and initial conditions even on fast computers. This difficulty is magnified when the systems that are simulated are inherently stochastic, for then, one can ask how many sample paths is enough? In addition to the computational difficulties and the incomplete knowledge of parameters, there is also the issue of the interpretation of the output of the model. Large simulations produce a tremendous amount of output and much of it is likely to be useless for the particulars of a given experiment. Finally, for many biological systems, one can only guess at the mechanism. A simulation does not tell you how dependent the behavior is on the particular instance of the mechanism that you have chosen.16

~ Bard Ermentrout, Department of Mathematics – University of Pittsburgh

But we must understand that, reduction is simply a method by which we digest necessary complexity – and is not tantamount to dismissing complexity nor making a model simple itself. Conflating these two principles can serve to be the genesis of much philosophical (and sadly, scientific) confusion.

Simplicity-Seeking is Intellectual Rent-Seeking

Simplicity-seeking, much akin to Nassim Taleb’s (as opposed to Gordon Tullock’s earlier version) principle entitled rent-seeking, is a way of profiting by means of the least-effort method ascertainable. Rent-seeking involves seeking to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating or contributing value as a part of that process. Easy money, Easy science. Just as in economics, where the activities of cartels, bureaucracies and monopolies – seek to gain economically through no provision of value – even so, simplicity seeking is a form of intellectual and scientific laziness. Bard Ermentrout elicits this by means of a great point inside the quote above, with his statement “…for many biological systems, one can only guess at the mechanism.”.

It is precisely our inability or lack of desire to handle and grasp complex body systems, along with the desire to make them simpler than they really are, that is the genesis of much misdiagnosis and mistreatment inside modern medicine. It is our wish to make things simple, which causes interventions based upon these fallacious understandings to indeed go wrong.

Let’s examine an example of this in modern medicine; and in particular one of the primary hormone signal and control centers in the body, the thyroid gland.

“Thyroid replacement hormones are a first line of defense for many doctors, prescribed with the promise of wiping out a number of symptoms in one fell swoop. But taking that approach is turning a blind eye to what caused the thyroid to become depressed in the first place. The underlying causes can range from irregular immune function and poor blood sugar metabolism to gut infections, adrenal problems, and hormonal imbalances. Hypothyroidism is a horribly mistreated and misunderstood disease. Not only does it remain undiagnosed in scores of people (including children), but once diagnosed, the old-school treatment of a single daily synthetic hormone replacement pill is not always effective.”17

~ Endocrinologist, Datis Kharrazian, from nyparenting.com

The thyroid gland is an advanced, complex and highly interleaved system control head. Its function inside the pituitary-thyroid-adrenal axis is poorly understood. And while the thyroid releases at least 4 hormones (body control signals), T1, T2, T3 and T4 – we as a medical body have made the damaging mistake of assuming that the gland’s role inside the body is simpler than it really is. We patent and prescribe T4 – Levothyroxine, repeatedly make easy billions of dollars, and call the science finished.  Meanwhile millions of people are harmed by this form of rent-seeking: simplicity seeking.

Problems with Enforcing Simplicity as an Over-Rule

As much as I would love to express some of the findings inside my philosophy in much simpler terms, as a technical and specification writer I find that I cannot in many cases, without compromising the material I wish to relate. Understanding as it turns out, is the ability to know when not to make something simpler, as opposed to the skill in doing so. Complexity many times, is asking the neophyte to up their game, not lower the standard of the material being presented. The principles I express in this blog are, many times discriminated inside levels of complexity to begin with. Spotting the magician’s trick requires that one understand the subtle methodology being employed by the magician. ‘Simple’ in this context, of the art of the professional lie, is often simply a sales job.

1)  Simple explanations have complex underpinnings.  Our “simple” explanations are only simple, because we choose to contort reality in extremely exhaustive complexities in order to force simplicity.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  But if he does drink, that is not a simple action by any means, it may appear to be simple but that is an illusion on the part of the casual observer. Simplicity, many times, is only an illusion.

2)  Beware of the tyranny of the simple.  Simplicity as a principle of discretion is best suited for the clear application of judgments and governances, and as such is usually based on sets of laws and procedure which change only slowly and under great necessity.  Laws only change as men change, and men are slow to change.  Because of this, laws of governance are always behind current understandings.  Unassailable principles of governance have little place in discovery and science.

3)  Simplicity conveys neither straightforwardness, nor elegance; which are central tenets of understanding.  “The simplest vehicle I know of is a unicycle.  I’ll be damned if after all these years of trying, I still have not managed to learn how to ride one.”

4)  Simplicity implies that enough data exists to warrant a conclusion regarding an observation, then further implies that a disposition must be tendered immediately.  Simplicity in this fashion is sold through construction of a false dilemma, a fatal logical fallacy.

5) Simplicity which does not give way to the utility of an incrementally more complex, yet better explanatory paradigm, is not simplicity, rather utility blindness or Kuhn Denialism. Science is a progression of incrementally better utility in the explanatory basis of successive models. As this process progresses, models tend to gain more accuracy or applicability at the cost of added complexity.  A focus on simplicity rather than utility can bias a person against the incremental nature of scientific explanatory progression.

6) Simple is a form of rent seeking. It is employed by a player who either does not understand the complex underlying principle or even worse desires to obfuscate that underlying principle to begin with. This usually involves a situation where the ‘simplicity-seeker’ is establishing a form of information control. An ability to derive and enforce a scientific paradigm without having to input the work, value or clarity normally incumbent with such a feat.

When rational thinking becomes nothing more than an exercise in simply dismissing observations to suit one’s inherited ontology, then the entire integral will and mind of the individual participating in such activity, has been broken.

Sometimes what is celebrated as simple, is in reality merely obtuse.

The Ethical Skeptic, “When Simple is Just Simply Wrong” The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress,27 May 2018, Web; https://wp.me/p17q0e-7I6