Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Overlooking simplicity

In the Tao Te Ching, Chinese philosopher (and founder of Taoism) Lao Tse writes, "To attain knowledge, add things every day; to attain wisdom, remove things every day."

There are a couple of interesting pieces to this concept.  First, that knowledge does not necessarily confer wisdom.  The implication is that knowledge (by itself) is less desirable than understanding, and understanding less desirable than wisdom.  If so, this definitely has some bearing on how science is taught in public schools -- often as a list of vocabulary words and definitions that do little more than scratch the surface of what's out there to learn.

Second, that doing a mental decluttering is better than trying to figure things out by jamming more stuff in.  Here, I'm reminded of what happens in my fiction writing when I'm at an impasse.  Slamming my fists against the obstacle almost never works; what frequently does is doing something else entirely, especially something stress-clearing like going for a run or playing with my dogs.  As counterintuitive as it might be, it seems like ceasing to think about the problem at all frees my brain up to figure out a solution.

How exactly that works on a neurophysiological level, I have no idea.

Lao Tse by Nicholas Roerich (1943) [Image is in the Public Domain]

As more support for Lao Tse's observation, consider the paper in Nature this week called, "People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes," by Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin Converse, Andrew Hales, and Leidy Klotz of the University of Virginia, which looked at another facet of this same issue -- that when approaching a solution to a complex problem, people often fail to consider solutions that require removing pieces of it or ceasing to do certain actions.  The authors write:

Improving objects, ideas or situations—whether a designer seeks to advance technology, a writer seeks to strengthen an argument or a manager seeks to encourage desired behaviour—requires a mental search for possible changes.  We investigated whether people are as likely to consider changes that subtract components from an object, idea or situation as they are to consider changes that add new components.  People typically consider a limited number of promising ideas in order to manage the cognitive burden of searching through all possible ideas, but this can lead them to accept adequate solutions without considering potentially superior alternatives.  Here we show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations.  Across eight experiments, participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes when the task did not (versus did) cue them to consider subtraction, when they had only one opportunity (versus several) to recognize the shortcomings of an additive search strategy or when they were under a higher (versus lower) cognitive load.  Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape, and damaging effects on the planet.

We're so well-trained by years and years of education that the way to find a solution to a problem is to throw more stuff at it that we don't even think of looking at solutions that require simplification.

"Additive ideas come to mind quickly and easily, but subtractive ideas require more cognitive effort," study co-author Benjamin Converse said, in an interview with Science Daily.  "Because people are often moving fast and working with the first ideas that come to mind, they end up accepting additive solutions without considering subtraction at all."

Now, there's a caveat here; not all problems have simple solutions.  When I was a teacher, I used to call this the "why don't we just...?" approach.  I remember students saying, "Why don't we just use chemical reactions that absorb carbon dioxide to fix climate change?" (it's completely unfeasible to do this on a large enough scale to help), and "why don't we just pass laws protecting wilderness areas and make mass deforestation illegal?" (not only does this run afoul of private ownership and eminent domain laws, it causes problems with resource acquisition, and ignores the fact that most of the threatened wilderness in the world is outside of the United States and therefore out of our jurisdiction -- not to mention the elephant in the room of global, societally locked-in wealth inequity as the root problem).  

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

But the basic idea here is that the answer doesn't always lie in fixing things by doing more stuff, and the human mind doesn't tend to see those kinds of solutions as easily as ones that require further or more intense action.

So give it a try.  When you're facing a difficult problem, give a shot to a Marie-Kondo-esque simplification approach.  What could you remove (or stop doing) that might help solve the problem?  Maybe a mental decluttering would help in a lot of realms other than overcoming writers' block.


If, like me, you love birds, I have a book for you.

It's about a bird I'd never heard of, which makes it even cooler.  Turns out that Charles Darwin, on his epic voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, came across a species of predatory bird -- the Striated Caracara -- in the remote Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina.  They had some fascinating qualities; Darwin said they were "tame and inquisitive... quarrelsome and passionate," and so curious about the odd interlopers who'd showed up in their cold, windswept habitat that they kept stealing things from the ship and generally making fascinating nuisances of themselves.

In A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiberg, we find out not only about Darwin's observations of them, but observations by British naturalist William Henry Hudson, who brought some caracaras back with him to England.  His inquiries into the birds' behavior showed that they were capable of stupendous feats of problem solving, putting them up there with crows and parrots in contention for the title of World's Most Intelligent Bird.

This book is thoroughly entertaining, and in its pages we're brought through remote areas in South America that most of us will never get to visit.  Along the way we learn about some fascinating creatures that will make you reconsider ever using the epithet of "birdbrain" again.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

1 comment:

  1. Regarding this matter, there is a book called "By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV". It also search for simple solutions by discarding previous matter.

    * In that hotel, every two adjoining rooms shared a bathroom. They needed to ensure that nobody could enter the bathroom when occupied, nor that any door was left locked once the first user has finished.