The inevitability of simplification?

Reading a recent exchange between Doug Belshaw and Dave Cormier on Doug’s blog post Gaining Some Perspective on Badges for Lifelong Learning prompted me to think about the role of simplicity and simplification in teaching and learning. You may wish to check the discussion yourself but I think Dave’s point is to claim simple solutions are possible for complex problems is tantamount to denying the underlying complexity itself. This is argued against Doug’s position that a possible approach to the problem of complexity is to try and provide simple solutions.

I’m with Dave in that I believe reality is ‘actually’ (ontologically) complex, uncertain, multilayered, emergent, and in important ways underdetermined and contingent. I am with Doug in that we have to simplify in order to understand and act. I say ‘have to’ because I don’t believe we have any choice in the matter. If this is correct the question is not whether we should simplify or not. The question is how to simplify without compromising our aims and objectives. This means that our simplifications must map onto actual features of the complex processes we wish to understand and intervene in and find ways to do this that minimise the influence of ideologically informed wishful thinking. I guess this is just another way of saying that some simplifications are better than others and so the debate is about how we can make these distinctions rather than do we simplify or not.

Simplification is what language does (and this includes the language of mathematics). We could not grasp the world or communicate without constructing concepts and categories. Language is profoundly metaphorical. It is a symbolic representation based on multiple forms of simplification – metaphor, similes, signifiers, concepts and categories. This is evident in our most developed forms of knowledge. In sociology we have Weber’s ideal types, Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity, anomie and alienation, competing models of class structure, the construction and selection of independent and dependent variables, and so on. It hardly needs emphasising that the crude mathematical simplifications constructed by mainstream economics are so far divorced from the complexity of the real world of ‘economic’ behaviour and the systemic features of human groups and societies that they are a significant part of the story of our recent woes. It is an interesting lesson that the increasing complexity of the economic ‘engineers’ mathematical models did not bring them one iota closer to predicting or even providing an explanation of the crash. Increasing complexity of the models did not lead to a better fit to the actual complexity of the processes being modelled. Complexification does not automatically equate to the improved ontological fit of the model

In the natural sciences it was Thomas Kuhn (developing the ideas of the scientist Ludvig Fleck) who first demonstrated that scientific theories are simplifications and, as such, develop increasing numbers of unexplainable (in the terms of the current theory) anomalies that scientists initially protect their theories from. Then, at some point, a competing theory is sufficiently developed to both explain what the old theory did and the anomalies. Although this pattern of scientific change is not without its critics and problems there are many historical examples of this sort of process. In physics, from the point of view of the theory of relativity Newtonian Mechanics is a simplification and incorrect in a number of demonstrable ways, despite being adequate for getting humans on the Moon. In geology, the simplification of geological processes according to the once dominant ‘fixist’ theory was shown to be fundamentally flawed with the discovery of the much more complex theory of plate tectonics (the mobilists).

History seems to suggest that simplification is inevitable and unavoidable but the simplifications improve in the face of their application in research and in practical application in the real world. Very often the theories and models become less simple, knowledge more esoteric, but they remain simplifications none-the-less.

As a teacher dealing with complex issues (for instance the relation between history, politics, culture, science, technology, economics, society, ecosystems, etc. in my Society and the Environment module) I am constantly simplifying in order to complexify later. This is, I think, my approach to my own learning as well as teaching. But I am the simplifier and as such make the decisions about what is central to understanding, what can be ignored for current purposes (who’s purpose? my purpose?) and what can be left in black boxes that can be opened later as part of the complexifying process. So simplicity always involves selection on the basis of some criteria, some explicit and known but others due to factors embedded in language, common-sense and taken for granted, unexamined, assumptions. This seems to me to be inevitable. But I have a particular world view and value orientation that leads me to select theorists, data, examples and arguments that emphasise the role and effects of globalising footloose capitalism and its neoliberal underpinnings. I think this is essential to understanding environmental issues. But it would be possible to construct an account of the environmental issues based entirely on a Whig history of science and technology for instance that takes for granted precisely what I want to bring a critical gaze to. My students know exactly what my position is and the assumptions and values that inform my approach to understanding and explanation. They know this because I tell them and then exemplify them in my approach. They are privy to the process of my knowledge construction. They know I am offering a particular view and they can see the nuts and bolts of my construction process. The discussion of the process is integral to the discussion of the knowledge claims. I would argue that exposure to this process is at least as important and maybe more so than the packaged simplifications I offer.

Gramsci said in his article about popular education (Avanti, 29 December 1916) that his most effective teachers where those that insisted students should know about the long, messy social history of the making of the current knowledge they were being asked to learn. This demonstrates an element of contingency in knowledge, at the very least the existence of two entwined strands in the history of knowledge, what Bachelard called lapsed and sanctioned histories. A key result of this approach is that students become aware that knowledge is a moment in a process of change, not a body of final truths and techniques. As students they are entering this process, not consuming its current manifestations as a product or outcome. I guess my approach to the inevitability of simplification is to embrace it but at the same time historicise and problematise it.

As a footnote to this post, I recently came across the video of Richard Sennett’s  Compass Annual Lecture 2012  entitled The Craft of Cooperation in which he expressed some interesting ideas on the pernicious use of simplification. The relevant section of the video is between 20 minutes 20 seconds and 23 minutes 35 seconds although I would recommend the whole lecture. Sennett makes a distinction between declarative speech and subjunctive speech. Declarative speech is basically this is what I think, take it or leave it. It forecloses on the possibility of ambiguity, discussion and negotiated meaning. When people say I want to be as clear as possible they usually simplify and try to be as precise as possible. But, in Sennett’s view, socially this forecloses the ability to have a discussion. He prefers the subjunctive mode of speech that includes maybes and perhapses. I’d be interested to know what others think of Sennetts ideas here. My feeling is that no doubt he is right some of the time but this by no means covers all of what I mean by simplification and its possible roles. There are modes of simplification in different contexts and they do not all foreclose on ambiguity and discussion. You can simplify in the subjunctive mode of speech as well as the declarative. I would like to think I teach and engage in discussion very much in the subjunctive mode. But perhaps not always.

5 Responses to The inevitability of simplification?

  1. Nicely put Terry,

    My point on this, and really the core of the work that i’m doing, is when does the approximation (what you’re calling simplicity) happen?

    If you teach people the approximations… the shorthand conventions, you’re only giving them the tools to deal with those prepackaged situations. If you MEASURE their success by their grasp of the convention (or simplicity, as you put it) then you are further reinforcing the shorthand.

    The skills (and literacies) required to make decisions in moments of uncertainty are vastly different than the ones required to remember the appropriate shorthand.

    That being said, i quite like the way you’ve put this. I just think that it’s absolutely critical that we leave the shorthand to the last possible moment.

  2. Thanks for the comment Dave. From my perspective approximation is a constitutive part of the process of developing, testing and improving knowledge. It is inherent in the process. If this is the case then it is not an event that can ‘happen’, or something that can be strategically delayed for pedagogic purposes. It is more a question of degree, more a question of competence. One of the things we find is that students that come to university even with high A level grades have to be ‘de-schooled’ to some extent for exactly the reasons you put your finger on. To a large extent they have absorbed pre-packaged knowledge that they then re-present in ways designed to be measurable.

    It’s not that we don’t also present students with pre-packaged knowledge. Its just that we (using shorthand!) induct them into the packaging process as a social and collaborative enterprise. In this way they can engage with knowledge production and dissemination critically, i.e. questioning discussing, negotiating, as a member of a knowledge creating community. These hopefully help them develop the crucial skills and literacies you mention. After all, in the words of my old professor Zygmunt Baumam (and many others no doubt) the only certain thing in life to day is uncertainty. So in practice I think we are dealing with degrees of approximation, of simplicity, and helping students recognise this. This means introducing provisional models, exploring them and critiquing them and gradually complexifying them. I think there is a difference between a useful provisional simplified account and a simplistic account and one of the skills we and our students need is to be able to make this distinction.

    There are many examples of this in my field. For instance, it is quite useful and partially correct no doubt to see the falling share of total income going to the majority of workers over the last 35 years being due to the lack of effective trade union organisation. If we see this as a useful but partial contribution to understanding the phenomenon in question we can ask important questions about why trade unions have lost power. This might mean looking at the globalising of production and labour markets and the increasing ability of capital and production to relocate. And we can build on this in a variety of ways including empirical investigation. But if the claim is made, and I have heard this, that trade union incompetence and lack of organisation is the primary cause of the declining fortunes of the ‘working classes’, that it is a matter of bad leadership, etc. then I would say this is simplistic.

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  4. Hi Terry

    For ‘simplification’ perhaps we can also sometimes read ‘abstraction’?

    Thanks for the thought provoking eloquence, really enjoyed the post.

    It resonates with ongoing dialogues I seem to have been having around, understandings and knowledges – and learning, teaching and research – and the use, and choice of, concepts and theories that, while being acknowledged as constructions that are contextual, contingent, temporal and partial (in both senses of the word), are useful, indeed, as you argue necessary, lenses for understanding, engaging with and attempting to change the world?
    Speaks to the need for a complementary holistic approach that challenges the tyranny of the disciplines (kind of telling we call them that!)?
    Inter/trans/meta/supra disciplinary?

    All best

  5. Thanks Gordon. I think there are indeed overlaps between what we mean when we say simplify, abstract, model, even stereotype. The actual meaning depends on the matter in hand – an attempt to be detached and systematic, or whether the intention is in some way political or ideological, to invite discussion or foreclose it. For many years my main interest was the sociology of knowledge and I find these sorts of issues fascinating and important. I focus on the notion of simplify in this post mainly because is addressing the previous discussion between Doug and Dave.

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