Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lessons from Blogging. Part IV: The Human World Is Complicated

That's the final message in this series honoring my years of blogging. To be quite honest, I have always known that the world is complicated and that simple explanations only rarely suffice (or at least much less often than people wish). But blogging keeps reinforcing that knowledge at the same time as it makes me see how very strong our (yes, mine, too) yearning for simple solutions is.

Take politics. The vast majority of writings on that topic seek for the simplest solutions: "They are the bad guys, we are the good guys." You can slot almost any political dilemma into that framework and see the jaws of the simplifying machines start grinding. Name-calling is part of that, ignoring contradictory information is part of that, applying moral judgments in place of facts is part of that. We all know the drill.

Social science research has a similar desire for simple answers, combined with the astonishing (!!!) assumption that though most past simple answers have now been falsified, these new simple ones are the correct and final ones. I sometimes imagine how future historians of science will write about this era of "memes" and stupid evo-psycho theories and the belief in some one gene as the ultimate explanation of everything. It most likely will look pretty much the same as those nineteenth century theories of phrenology look to us.

What do I mean by the title of this post? Not only the fact that events and people are in themselves complicated but that the explanations for those events and for the behaviors of those people must also by necessity be complicated, or at least long and specific. There are exceptions to this rule, naturally (such as the reasons why people flee from a burning building), but one should never expect general simplicity of the kind we do look for.

I could prove this to you by following the development of some social science idea from its beginnings to its end. Those stages often show considerable changes in the basic explanations, added data forcing more detailed answers and criticisms requiring refinement and further explanations. Sometimes the idea itself dies a quiet death in the academic circles but continues to survive on the cocktail party circuit, largely because the initial simple idea was easy to swallow and easy to regurgitate, whereas being erudite and funny about complicated manners is more difficult. The power of Dead Simple Theories is awesome in popular culture and this frightens me a great deal.

What frightens me even more is the rapid birth of new Simple Theories and their swift acceptance. People like me with their "yes, but" and "sometimes" and "controlling for" cannot keep up, especially when the fashion for particular Simple Theories is at its strongest (such as the current fashion for genetic explanations alone).

All this brings me to my approach to feminism. I respect its complexity on one hand and bang my head against that wall of simple desires on the other hand. From that mess and that tension comes what I write.