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Phillip A. Ortiz, Ph.D.

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Complex Problems Have Complex Solutions

Posted: 05/04/2012 4:38 pm

It may have been used as the clever title for a few books and self-help seminars, but none of us learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten. It'd be nice if the toughest question we ever needed to answer was 'nap now' or 'nap later,' but that's just not true. The world is a complex place, facing complex problems that have complex solutions, and we need to make complex decisions everyday.

Living in a complex world, requires that inhabitants act as global citizens, and responsible citizenry requires engagement. Case in point: science and the health of our planet. In the 30+ years since I first read of 'thermal pollution' (now termed 'climate change') there's been more ink spilled and more elections zapped on this topic than any one of us can ever read. In fact, despite the fact that most people have never read more than a page or two on the topic, nearly everyone has an opinion. For some, it's not happening and it's all a hoax. For others, its happening and it's real. Only one group can be right, and being on the wrong side may have catastrophic implications.

So, who really owns the truth, and how can we get to the bottom of it? Is it as simple as establishing a few premises, creating a testable hypothesis, and then acting on the results? Sadly, in America it's not. Too many people have staked a claim in the truth and, despite the absurdity of some of their ideas, too few of us have challenged them.

Consider this simple idea: The planet on which we live is governed by natural laws. Although plenty has occurred that we can't immediately explain, and random chance is frustrating and scary, nothing magical happens here. This seems like a reasonable idea, and is the reason I don't "believe in gravity" -- gravity exists and the effects of it occur independently of my belief it it. Similarly, I don't believe in sunlight, beer, or evolution by natural selection (the first two of these require no explanation, for the last you'll need to wait until a future posting), because, like gravity, they exist and will continue to do so regardless of how much I believe in them. Why these natural laws exist, we may never know, but that doesn't make them any more or less real. On the other hand, acting as if they don't exist can have entirely predictable and disastrous consequences. That's the thing about natural laws, no one can suspend them. Not believing in them is not a choice. Not believing in them doesn't make them go away. To coin a phrase: They're really, really, really, real.

Play this out in your mind. Pick something that is real -- that is, it can be observed, measured, and tested -- and, then do just that. Is the outcome always the same? If not, why not? If the answer to your last question relies upon magic or religion, call Steven Hawking and the Vatican as they should be informed pronto.

Now, how about that whole 'climate change' thing? Is it real, or is it not? Belief in it doesn't affect whether it's happening, but it may affect our behaviors. So, what can we observe, measure, and test? The climate and atmospheric records go back thousands and thousand of years. It doesn't matter who is 'reading' that record, any more than it matters who reads the thermometer hanging outside of your kitchen window. The facts are immutable and available to all. Those climate patterns can be explained by atmospheric conditions, and thus it's simple enough to predict that if those conditions come to exist again, then so will the climate patterns. And, for those who don't yet get it: The Earth has always become warmer when there's more carbon dioxide in the air, and it will again.

A friend of mine once pointed out that the most important statement any of us ever makes is when we first say, "I want to do it myself." That statement marks the day that we realize that we're more than passive victims of world forces, but rather are able to act on the world. For most of us, that day occurs in our first few years of life, but more and more I'm coming to realize that there are many for whom that realization never occurs.

In kindergarten we didn't learn the links between explanation and prediction, but we did learn the importance of curiosity and learning. Resolve yourself to the endless quest for discovering, testing, asking -- all the things that lead to learning. And, while you're at it, rid yourself of the people who would rather that you used only the "factual lens" that they determine. Seeking truth and knowledge won't be easy, in fact there will be plenty of times that it'll be downright frightening or frustrating, but it'll always be worth it.

Complex problems have complex solutions. Sure, there were a few cleverly titled books and self-help seminars for the simple-minded, but none of us learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten. It'd be nice if the toughest question we ever needed to answer was 'decaf' or 'regular,' but that's just not true. The world is a complex place, facing complex problems that have complex solutions, and we need to make complex decisions everyday.

 
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