The dangers of oversimplification

By Philip S. Powell 15 Nov 2018
'Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.' – Confucius

Confucius, the fifth century BC Chinese philosopher, believed that life ought to be simple and we should avoid complicating it. There is indeed something that rings true about keeping life simple. The simple things of life can also be some of the best things. Simplicity is important for living a healthy life in a frantic world overloaded with information and images. But in this blog-post I want to address the problem of oversimplification.

Oversimplification is making a matter more simplistic than it is that it leads to misunderstanding and error. It is about trying to describe or explain something in such a simple way that it is no longer correct or true. Oversimplification leads us away from truthful understanding toward a distorted view of things.


For any of us who have ever attempted to honestly study the Bible, we become quickly aware that oversimplifications will do us no good. Instead we face the constant challenges of nuance and context, which help us to grapple more truly and completely with the Bible's message. In a similar way, we need to be especially alert to the dangers of oversimplification when it comes to dealing with challenging political problems like Brexit or the future of liberal democracy. Let me mention some of the ways that I see the problem of oversimplification playing out and what we can do to overcome them.

Trusting what experts have to say

One of the worrying trends in recent times is the attempt to make all views on a matter equally valid (or invalid), as if everyone commenting on the matter is equally qualified to do so simply because they have an opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, this is pervasive on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, where a comment by a conspiracy theorist and a person with a PhD are thrown together as if they both carry the same weight and credibility. Surely this cannot be right. Having a Facebook page and avidly posting things doesn’t make what is being shared valid or truthful. Therefore it is important to reinforce the fundamental difference between a qualified medical professional who has spent several years training to be a doctor, and a village quack who gives himself the title doctor and thinks he can cure any illness with his herbs and oils. To deal with the dangers of oversimplification, we need to recover an appreciation for people who comment and write on certain matters because they are qualified to do so.

Rejecting ‘us vs them’

Another danger of oversimplification is making everything a matter of ‘us vs them’. There is the good and right side (which also happens to be my side), and there is the wrong and bad side that I am against. But is reality really this simple? Certainly not. Of course, there is a proper place for ‘either-or’ binary thinking, but this logic cannot be applied to all aspects of life. What are the consequences of thinking in a very simplistic ‘us vs them’ binary? It leads to the fallacy of the excluded middle, which does not permit any position between the two extremes and we then are left with having to choose one of the extreme options. It denies the possibility that when two sides disagree (and the disagreement is real) they might still have more in common based on what they share and agree on than what divides them. Oversimplification based on ‘us vs them’ side-lines and delegitimizes the views of those who dissent from the simplistic binary narrative.

Embracing ambiguity and paradox

One of the other dangers of oversimplification is that it diminishes our ability to live with ambiguity and paradox. We don’t like the discomfort and disorientation that this creates. We would rather dumb-down or drown-out opposing or conflicting perspectives instead of affirming that different perspectives offer important truths, and that there is a need to do the hard work of engaging with these views for ascertaining a fuller, authentic understanding regarding a matter. Sometimes, this will also mean having to step back and see the bigger picture and learning how to connect the different dots to make sense of reality. Seeing the bigger picture will mean making some room for ambiguity and paradox. Our world is a complicated place and learning to appreciate this complexity is not necessarily a bad thing.

So let us enjoy the simple things of life while avoiding the dangers of oversimplification. What is needed to deal with the problems of oversimplification is a new appreciation for complexity and nuance and making room for asking hard questions that demand more than just shallow answers. Only then can we really deal with and solve complicated social problems.

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