There’s an old quote which is attributed to H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” I’ve been reminded of this as I watch various people on both the Right and the Left trying to espouse their particular stand on Libya, and their reaction to the President’s speech. All of them seem to be trying to come up with a simple, easily repeated statement that justifies their particular stand, and “what the President really meant.” Which usually isn’t what he actually said, or encapsulates what he very clearly said. They’re trying to turn a complex situation into something simple – and they’re getting it wrong.
There’s a column in the NY Daily News which lays it out:
But now, in the first major test of a crisis rearing its head on his watch, many have derided Obama’s approach as the professor’s way of war. So the pundits were craving clarity Monday night when he took the stage at the National Defense University in Washington, clamoring for something like an Obama Doctrine, a few snappy sentences that encapsulate his foreign policy, a formula where you plug in the variables and get your answer each and every time.
It didn’t happen. It was never going to happen. Nor should it have happened.
Which might actually be the Obama Doctrine. That is, a complex problem will require a complex solution, which depends on the variables at the time. There are some overall principles which act as guides, but a simple, easy-to-understand formula is not going to work. It’s sometimes hard, because people often want a simple answer. Yes/No; If this then that; black/white; good/bad. Binary thinking. The problem is that very few things actually lend themselves to that. Instead of black/white the answer is often determining which shade of gray you’re looking at, and instead of Yes/No, the answer is Maybe, it depends.
I’m used to that. My training, and most of my work has been in biology. We don’t deal with simple things very often, and what may seem simple on the outside turns out to be incredibly complex. There’s even a humorous law, called The Harvard Law: Given optimum conditions, the experimental organism will do as it damn well pleases. Which comes down to even when you control for all the variables, you still have some variability. In ecology, the idea that there’s a “balance of nature” is not really in vogue, at least as various activists would have you believe. It’s a dynamic balance, not a stable one, and there’s always the element of catastrophe which can change things radically. Earth is not a stable system, as anyone who’s paid attention to the news over the past few years will testify. Volcanoes erupt, earthquakes happen, hurricanes hit, and so on. The mathematical field of chaos theory turns out to do a better job of understanding the underlying principles of ecosystems than the “simple models.”
Yes, it’s nice when there’s a nice simple explanation for something. Yes, it’s nice when you get an obvious problem, and an obvious answer. It’s human nature to want something like that, to have certainty. But the real world doesn’t work that way, either in nature or in politics. There are complexities, and a simple formula where you plug in the numbers and get an answer not only doesn’t work, the answer can be totally wrong. We have a President who understands that, who is willing to deal with the complexities. Will he always get it right? No, because that’s unreasonable to expect. But he’s going to get it right more often than not.
I know the pundits on the Left and the Right, and their followers, were looking for simple answers, a comforting certainty from the President’s speech. Something they could use to show they had it right, that their “expertise” summarized everything. Their problem is that the correct answer was: It’s complicated. Sorry about that.