Tuesday, October 18, 2016

There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Except when there are.

I have been harping along for some time that the single greatest problem facing humanity today is the deliberate engineering of a population explosion by the rich, in order to drive wages down for the many and profits up for the few (although deliberate, it is also largely unconscious: the rich have mostly rationalized that what is good for them must be good for everyone and they are just advancing their own short-term interests.  They are also using their power and influence to stifle unwanted attention of their pro-natalist policy, again, largely unthinkingly as the rich naturally bestow their largess and connections to those who make them feel good about themselves.  But functionally, the same thing.  The population explosion has been deliberately created by the rich). 

Now I am open to rational counter-arguments, but these are sadly in short supply.  A typical counter-argument is ‘there you go again.’  Anyone who stoops to this argument has admitted that they have no intellectual ammunition.  Consider:

‘There you go again, always harping that 2 + 2 = 4.’

‘There you go again, always harping that water flows downhill.’

‘There you go again, always harping that the sun rises in the East.’

Continued repetition in the face of willful ignorance is not proof of error.

And of course there are the classic ripostes that I am ‘scapegoating immigrants’ or am ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’ or ‘islamophobic’ – the hollowness of using such unsupported slander instead of rational argument, I leave to the reader to judge.

Let us consider yet another mindless jingoism: “There are no simple solutions to complicated problems.”   The claim would be that the world is so complicated that there is nothing to be done but wring our hands over the injustice of the world, mouth empty platitudes about wanting ‘social justice,’ and maybe – maybe – from time to time we can come up with a few pennies and put a bandaid on one of the more visible problems.  Anything else is utopian and impractical.

Maybe.  Or maybe not.

Consider what happens when a person is starving to death.  They become lethargic.  They become prone to infection.  They may have poor skin and thin hair.  They may have kidney problems, and multiple imbalances in electrolytes and blood chemistry.  They become sensitive to the cold.  They don't heal as well in the face of injury.  In short, the process of starvation is complicated and exhibits multiple manifestations.  So if I told you that the solution to someone starving to death, is to give them some food, would you just throw up your hands and say ‘there you go again, always proposing simple solutions for complex problems’?  That would be ridiculous.

Now I claim that many of the problem in the world are due to forced population growth.  Sustained high fertility rates can and do wipe out all progress (this is beyond economics: this is basic physics), leading to mass poverty, social unrest, a weakening of the central state, endemic corruption and nepotism, environmental despoliation, the spread of diseases, refugee crises…  You may disagree with me.  But you can’t rationally just chant ‘oh there are no simple solutions to complex problems,’ because many times a simple problem has multiple ramifications. But you really can fix it with one thing.

In the practice of medicine, there is no guarantee that a sick patient will have only one underlying problem (‘a patient can have as many diseases as he or she pleases.’)  And yet the standard practice of medicine is to first see if there is, perhaps, a single underlying pathology that is giving rise to all of the various symptoms.

This is the basic approach of science: to first look for simple underlying principles.

But there is no guarantee that a simple underlying principle will always exist.  Consider now old age.  That also presents as a complex set of symptom clusters, but as far as we know so far, there is not a single thing that causes the progressive failing of human health with age.  A thousand different chemical byproducts build up in a hundred different tissues, non-replaceable cells die, collagen cross-links and stiffens…  Perhaps someday someone really will find a single simple treatment that, even if it does not cure old age completely, will ameliorate a large fraction of the problems.  Just because we have not found such a thing, does not mean that it does not exist, or that we should stop looking.  But right now, old age really does look like a complex problem that doesn’t have a simple solution.

And here is the problem: determining whether or not a given complex-seeming problem does or does not have a single (or at least primary) underlying cause requires thought.  Which is hard.

Nevertheless, one thing should be clear.  When someone tries to attack an argument by non-specifically claiming that there are no simple solutions to complex problems, they are engaging in intellectual dishonesty.

A similar trick is when a politician tries to push a given change in policy by claiming that ‘we must embrace change’ or ‘we must not be afraid of change.’  This is a transparent attempt to deflect criticism of the specific attributes of a change in policy by claiming that those opposed are irrationally opposed to change per se.  Any politician making such an unsupported statement should immediately be assumed to be acting with bad intent.

So far, so good.  We need to think clearly.  There is one little problem with that.

There are today so many people flooding the internet and the airwaves and bookstores etc. with so many crackpot theories, but we can’t critically evaluate them all.  We need the cognitive armor of routinely dismissing as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘crackpot’ all non-mainstream theories, or we would be overwhelmed.  The problem is Zionists, the problem is too tight a monetary policy, the problem is too loose a monetary problem, or too much free trade, or too little free trade, or too much democracy, or racism, or blacks are stupid, or the CIA is controlling our thoughts with radio waves… 

And so we have a simple and obvious explanation for much of what ails the world, but it is invisible.  It suffers the double-hit of being directly targeted for burial by the people with money and power, and also being relegated to the vast forest of (mostly) absurd utopian political and economic theories that we have made a (necessary) habit of denigrating without thought…

And no, I have no idea how to solve this issue either.  Only to do my best, and argue my case. 

I do point out that a stable or slowly growing population by itself will not create utopia, nor even paradise.  Too-rapid population growth will create poverty: but allowing populations to stabilize at a moderate level will not create wealth.  A stable or very slowly growing population creates nothing, but only means that people will have the chance to slowly accumulate per-capita real physical wealth.  And creating significant per-capita wealth, even if it’s not being wiped out by massive population growth, is indeed hard, and requires effort and persistence and intelligence.  That, at least, is complicated.

Nevertheless, the record is clear: when people have abundant resources and tools, and modest progress is not wiped out by ever more mouths to feed, they generally do pretty well.

We are probably doomed, but must only do our best.  Regardless, if there is one take-home message from this, it’s the following: do not accept any unsupported claims that XYZ is untenable because ‘there are no simple solutions to complex problems.’  Because yes Virginia, sometimes, there really are.