Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…

Paris Review: What do you think happens psychically when you’ve brought the poem to a sort of dead point, to get beyond which you would have to go in a direction that you can’t yet imagine? Joseph Brodsky: The thing is that you can always go on, even when you have the most terrific ending.

Alexis de Tocqueville is quoted saying it’s easier for the world to believe a simple lie than a complex truth. As with so much else in this same world, that statement is true only as far as it goes; here too we need to push his point further.

What we weren’t told is that for you to know what is a simple lie or not, you must be able first to distinguish complex truths from what they are not. This means you need to know how to spot a complex issue from ones that have been overly complexified, not just simplified. Attention to dumbing up, not just to dumbing down, is required.

Both the overly simple and the overly complex are their own kinds of exaggerations, and the duty of care of those who take complexity seriously is not to make already difficult issues of politics and policy more or less complex than they are. This holds for war, inequality, the environment, healthcare, poverty, finance, and the broader issues of politics, society and economics core to this blog.

–The litmus test that an issue is overly complexified or simplified is the surprise that comes with recasting that issue in ways that admit its complexity but in the process stimulate and open up new options for action. If the simple lie can be recast as complex in ways that excite thinking about fresh interventions or if the issue thought to be so complex—“wicked,” in today’s parlance—that no further action is possible can be recast to demonstrate otherwise, then the matter has been pushed and pulled in unexpected ways beyond their respective exaggerations. We know something is the case as far as it goes but needs go further when it is surprise that pushes us further. Many of us stopped seeing birds as complex; you, however, were surprised to see an entirely new artform, featherwork.

–The stakes have are high in all his. I’m at a Washington D.C. science conference listening to a public affairs panel exhort government-sponsored researchers to recast our findings into take-home messages that politicians can digest—and fund further.

It’s up to us, the panelists press, because policymakers and their staffs don’t have time for anything more. “…And whatever you do,” panelists insist, “don’t tell them it’s more complex than they know!”

There it is, I tell myself: Complexity is unpatriotic. This, the late-stage cretinization that comes with doing policy research for Beltway U.S.A. Later it occurred to me that the panelists were pleading with us not to make things more complex than they already are. Doing so drives Congressmembers and their staff to even worse simplification.

(I want to stress how visceral all of this can get. No one wants to hear they’re asking the wrong questions or their answers are far too unrealistic; no policymaker wants to be called a naïf. To tell policymakers the situation is terribly more complex is to trigger their fear-and-fight response. You actually see their eyes dart, faces go dour, cheek muscles tighten. You have to wonder how to discuss what is complex so that the prefrontal cortex can handle it and the amygdala is not triggered.)

–How do we fulfill our duty of care to decisionmakers in telling them, “complex is about as simple as it gets, and here’s what you can do”?

The answer in this blog has been: If insisting that “complexity” is today’s conversation-stopper—Whatever you do, don’t tell them it’s complex!—we must instead excite far more focus on its close cognates so to fulfill our duty of care to decisionmakers. The cognates I have in mind in this blog are: not-knowing, inexperience, difficulty, distraction, analytic blur, and good-enough. Each, and other optics, are used to recast overcomplexified or oversimplified issues more tractably. (Truth told, many defenders of complexity haven’t done justice to complexity.)

–My aim is to convince the reader of the great merit in insisting: “What we say about many political and policy issues could well be true as far as it goes, but—and yet—we often don’t take that truth far enough. Even when true, what’s been said needs to be pushed further and here is how…” As in: Yes, of course, power interests determine and constrain policy, but that is true only as far as it goes, and in these cases, it must go farther and here’s what we can do once we do push further…” And yet it moves, we follow Galileo direction.

–It needs underscoring that to stop short at what is “true as far as it goes” is to end in gross exaggeration. When it comes to politics, policy and management, in saying too little or too much we end up saying not enough. We end up tacking on an implied “&c” without filling in the details—and details are what separate the granular wheat from the buzzing chaff. Far too much satisfaction has been taken in separating truth from error, while failing to recognize the cases where spotting and probing both don’t go far enough.

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