9.663 simple solutions

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Thu, 28 Mar 1996 00:16:22 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 663.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: FORTIER@ccm.UManitoba.CA (27)
From: "H-CLC (BD)" <bdiederi@artsci.wustl.edu>
Subject: Simple solutions?

On the question of simple solutions, and with apologies to Thomas
Kuhn, we have to distinguish two types of simple solutions: the
stupidly simple, and the elegantly simple.
New technology always produces masses of new data, sooner or later.
Better optics produced masses of astronomical data in the Renaissance;
new travel technology produced masses of biological data in the early
modern period. In both cases these data were incredibly complex when
viewed from the perspective of existing theoretical frameworks (Aristotelian
physics, or Linnaean biology). Newtonian physics showed that all the
data could be explained in terms of three laws, cutting through
enormous complexity. Similarly the Darwinian theory of evolution permitted
an understanding of biological complexity in terms of a simple principle.
These were elegantly simple solutions.
Other simple solutions are simple because they ignore data. For example,
the politically popular idea that by reducing social benefits you can
force people to work--ignores the absence of jobs for people of the
education/training level making them clients of social services, the
absence of child-care at levels affordable by people in minimum wage
jobs, changes of technology making many job skills obsolete, exporting
low skill jobs to the 3rd world, etc. So, reducing social benefits to
increase employment is a stupidly simple solution.
The application of this in the humanities? WE still tend to seek the
striking example and the original interpretation, rather than the theoretical
structure that reduces a plethora of details to elegant simplicity.
Perhaps with this plethora now easily accessible, and more and more
obvious, we will be drawn to seek elegantly simple interpretations, but
that requires a change in mind-set among a great number of us, and I
wonder if we are willing to take the intellectual risk.