November 10, 2016

Complex Problems Rarely Have Simple Solutions

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By Nuggetkiwi [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Whenever something awful happens (e.g., a mass shooting, a Catholic priest molesting countless children, the election of Donald Trump), we seek explanations. This is natural. Unfortunately, it is also natural - or at least incredibly appealing - to search for magic bullet sort of explanations in which we attempt to explain complex phenomena with a single variable. Simplicity is appealing, but complex phenomena rarely lend themselves to simple explanations utilizing one or even a few variables.

In the social sciences, we often utilize multivariate models in which several variables are assembled in different ways in an attempt to explain complex phenomena. This becomes complicated quickly and requires sophisticated statistics that are difficult to explain; however, we typically find that many variables are necessary in order to explain something as complicated as human behavior.

In the aftermath of Trump's election, I have seen many people latching on to single variable explanations. Again, this is understandable even though I seriously question whether any single variable explanation for this surprising outcome can contribute much insight. For now, though, let's set aside the issue of accuracy and focus on something that might be even more important here.

The most popular single variable explanation I saw yesterday on social media was that Trump won because the majority of American voters are racist and/or misogynistic. This seems to be quickly becoming the accepted narrative for some on the political left. As I noted above, I doubt that any single variable explanation for something so complex gives us much utility. Even if racism and/or misogyny are part of the story, they are only a part. There are almost certainly many other variables, some of which likely have far more explanatory power.

Aside from the question of accuracy though, what is worth understanding here? One of the things some of us have heard from Trump supporters is that widespread, indiscriminate, and unwarranted accusations of racism and/or misogyny were part of why they supported Trump. In essence, some say that they were drawn to Trump because they were sick and tired of political correctness and attacks on free speech from the regressive left. They saw him as someone who was not afraid to buck this trend and say things many would find offensive.

I would no more suggest that this one variable explains Trump's victory than I would suggest that racism and/or misogyny explain it. I mention it because it occurs to me that if Trump supporters are being honest about how fed up they are with this sort of thing, we might do well to listen. Blaming Trump's victory on racism and/or misogyny, to the exclusion of other variables, might cost us more than accuracy; it might get us more of what we say we don't want. Here's how Dave Rubin put it:
I suspect that he may have a point. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge our mistakes, set aside the name-calling, and start trying to learn from those who have different perspectives on the world we share. To do so strikes me as consistent with both freethought and humanism.
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