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Making Complicated Things Seem Simple: Critical Thinking Red Flags Part 3

Andrew Badham 2023-05-16 16:58:40

A man holding a cupcake with a lightbulb

In part 1 of our series, we looked at people who make things seem too good to be true and then spoke about the opposite: people who make things seem too bad to be true. We have a similar dichotomy for this next subject: there are people who make complicated things sound simple, and there are those that make simple things overly complicated. Both should be red flags, but let’s start with the former: making complicated things seem too simple.

Life is complicated

A good starting point for anyone’s critical thinking journey is the realisation that life is complicated. You can take almost any subject and find absurd levels of detail. Take gardening for example. If you lack a green thumb as I do, gardening looks pretty straightforward; stick the plant in the ground, water it, done! However, if you spoke to an experienced gardener, they would consider the soil type, the level of sunlight, the surrounding vegetation, the season, and a whole bunch of other factors, I’m not even aware of. So, when it comes to gardening, I try to be aware that there’s probably a lot I don't know, so I need to be cautious when making decisions about my backyard and find someone with expertise to help me make those decisions.

Why don’t we like complicated answers?

The trouble is that caution and contemplation cost energy, and our brains love to conserve energy. It’s way more energy efficient to see the world in simple rules than it is to have to ponder each situation deeply. So, if we are given two explanations for something and one of them is simple and easy to understand and another is complicated, we’ll probably be tempted to accept the simple explanation. It just takes less effort.

Essentially, this is where we prefer convenient fantasies over inconvenient truths. Let’s think of something complicated like cancer. I once saw a post on Facebook which said, “No disease, including cancer, can exist in an alkaline environment.” The post was trying to convince people that if they simply reduced their acidity through the foods they consumed, they could be healthy and cancer free.

Example of oversimpified claim using Dr Otto Warburg 

Now let's contrast that with a more complex opinion: cancer is a disease which can result from many different causes; it presents itself in many different forms, and not every treatment works on every case. While there are preventative lifestyle measures you can take, there is no guarantee that they will save you from presenting with cancer.

Which took less energy to understand? Which seemed a more appealing idea? Probably the simple one, which is why posts like the above went viral.

How to spot oversimplifications

When I saw this post, my first thought was, well, humans can’t survive in an alkaline environment either. So, I was immediately suspicious but I don’t have a medical education so I couldn’t say whether there was any truth to the statement. Nevertheless, I knew something about the claim was setting off a red flag.

Now, it turns out that there is a lot of good science explaining why this idea is dumb and more information which suggests that Dr Warburg’s ideas are being misrepresented, but that wasn't any information I knew at the time. So, how could I, a non-expert in this field, recognise that this post was dodgy? It made a complicated thing like cancer seem like it had really simple answers. Cancer pathology is a subject people dedicate their lives to over generations. If the solution to all cancers was “drink lemon water in the morning” a lot of people would have been wasting a lot of time. That seemed unlikely to me, which is why I chose to dig a little deeper and find out more information.

So, the simple idea is to look out for people oversimplifying complex things, but we can add to that. There are subjects which are more likely to fall victim to these simplifications and these are subjects that we are still trying to better understand as a species. A recent one is the gut microbiome, a lot of focus is being spent on how the critters in our digestive tract might affect our mood, appetite and more. The trouble is, there is a lot that scientists still don’t know for sure in this field of research, so that leaves the door slightly open for people to put their own ideas in the gap.

For another example, we can look at AI. Artificial intelligence is a new and emerging technology and so there is a lot of uncertainty as to where it could go or what it could do. This gives many people the opportunity to insert their half-baked ideas into the conversation. So, if you hear someone describing the consequences or implications of this new tech in very simple terms, you might raise a red flag in your mind.

Now do keep in mind that raising a red flag doesn’t mean dismissing the message, sometimes there are simple truths even in complex situations. For example, lifting heavy weights will make your muscles grow. That idea leaves out a lot of information on nutrition, genetics, rep ranges, workout programming and more but the statement itself isn’t false. In fact, sometimes you can go the other way and overcomplicate something simple, but we’ll discuss that in another article.