The Oversimplification of Everything

Some time ago I was reading a book [Lies My Teacher Told Me]. I didn’t finish it, not because it wasn’t good, but because it was thoroughly depressing, and I’m usually not the kind to be easily depressed. The author was pointing out case after case where textbooks and teachers were wrong. I got to thinking about his approach and realized that what he was often complaining about wasn’t about lies at all — but that teachers and textbooks all oversimplified everything to the point that those oversimplifications become simplistic and often were not technically correct.

Part of that is understandable — almost nothing is as simple as anyone makes it out to be, and few of us have the time and patience to learn the full story about anything. Life is really like fractals — while we seem to see regular patterns, those events aren’t all that regular, and the deeper one looks the more there is.

Yet, at times, overunderstanding can be counterproductive. I don’t care about impact physics when I’m stapling shingles or hammering in a picture hangar. The problem is that once some things, particularly economics and politics, are oversimplified, they are in fact lies, and those lies change the course of human events, while oversimplifying the impact physics of hammering nails generally has little effect on the ability to hammer in nails — or the rate of housing construction.

But failure to understand can be even more deadly, especially in a representative democracy where voters have to decide on who represents them and when those decisions are based on news so condensed that it’s essentially a lie, even if every fact presented is in fact accurate, because the facts not presented would have changed the entire slant of that news item. Unfortunately, in this day of instant news and instant information, most individuals don’t want to listen to the full story. They have a thirty second — or less — attention span for anything that doesn’t affect them, especially at that moment, and to cater to that, most information providers condense information and news to short snippets of quick and oversimplified material. Almost always, this results in distortion and can change popular opinion or reinforce already existing stereotypes.

Years ago, when I was legislative director for a U.S. Representative, he made the point that in an appropriations hearing there was more debate on a line item for mule barn than on research appropriations for a nuclear collider — because everyone knew what a mule barn was and wanted to voice their opinions. He was exaggerating, but not by much. In another case, the abandoned hazardous waste sites [Superfund sites] ignited a giant controversy during the Reagan administration because the American public had heard about Love Canal and could visualize the problem. The political uproar that followed because people felt that EPA wasn’t enforcing the law vigorously enough essentially resulted in the removal of 33 out of the 35 political appointees at the Agency, and all the top officials. Yet, several years later, studies revealed that there were nine other far more serious environmental problems that were killing far, far more Americans than leakage from abandoned Superfund sites, and that those problems couldn’t be addressed adequately because so much of EPA’s funding, as a result of the Superfund scandal, had gone to the waste site problem.

Virtually every government agency has similar stories, and so do many corporations. While absolutely egregious, the recent payment of bonuses to AIG executives tends to overshadow the far larger and more critical problem of a financial system that institutionalizes and rewards excessive risk and short-term profits and diverts funding and attention from basic reforms of that system, as well as from vital infrastructure, health care reform, and education.

In short, in a condensed, sensation-based news culture, what you hear is usually an oversimplified version that’s all too often a “truthful” lie because of what’s missing. And, more and more, such “truthful lies” lead to bad public policy and worse legislative fixes, which in turn create more problems reported in another set of “truthful lies”… and so it goes.