Tag Archives: Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman was a physicist. He was great at explaining things in simple ways.

Fooled by complexity

To make stuff harder to understand is to add complexity to them.

People sometimes think that if something they read is confusing and hard to understand, it means that it is deep and meaningful. This type of reasoning becomes especially common if you find out that other people believe and say that the unintelligible stuff is deep and meaningful.

When people claim that something is deep and meaningful but you can’t make sense of it, ask them why they consider it to be deep and meaningful. You’ll find that, more often than not, they do not have good reasons as to why.
Unfortunately, much like the adults in HC Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” most people are too afraid to look dumb in the eyes of others, so they usually do not ask for clarification when they are confused. Most people are, what Rand would call, second-handers.

Something that seems confusing is not necessarily useless. But making stuff confusing is a method often used in pretending something is deep and meaningful when it’s actually not. If you don’t understand something you shouldn’t pretend it is meaningful just because it is confusing.

Richard Feynman was good at explaining things in a simple to understand way. In, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, Feynman shares one “fooled by complexity” kind of situations from his life:

There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read–something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! […] *I had this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read _one sentence_ slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”*
So I stopped–at random–and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”
Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became a kind of empty business: “Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio,” and so on, but *written in such a fancy way that I couldn’t understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.*

When people do understand something, they should be able to explain it in a fairly simple way. If they can’t, chances are they do not really understand it themselves. This is very true for our own understanding as well – if you can’t explain things in a fairly simple way, chances are that you do not really understand them that well.

Asking questions is one way to not get fooled by complexity. Ask others clarifying questions. Ask yourself clarifying questions. Why is this? How is this so? Idea trees are a good way to organise one’s thoughts.

So if you do not understand something that you think is important, ask for clarifications. Even more importantly, ask yourself for clarifications – and put effort into simplifying things so that they actually are coherent.

Feynman again:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.