Lost in multi-parametrical thinking

Even the brightest people are overwhelmed with complex life problems. We fall into the trap of oversimplifying them.

Linear mono-parametrical problems are easily understood. - If one pound of beef is 10 dollars, how much would two pounds be? - Many primary school students will answer 20 dollars with ease, and three pounds? That would be 30 dollars. The human brain is naturally endowed to grasp this kind of problems. More input produces proportionally more output. This type of problems is called a linear mono-parametrical problem.
Unfortunately life is much more complex and hard to grasp.  Almost all problems in real life are multifaceted and quite cumbersome. Let’s take the economy as an example. Economy policymakers see the national economy as a complex engine with many knobs and valves to take care of. Say that the output is the unemployment rate and needs to be reduced. Should we increase the income tax? Reduce the central bank interest rates? Increase or reduce the federal budget deficit? The government debt rate? The currency exchange rate? The import tax? And there are many more inputs!! You turn one knob up, and the whole economy may go nuts. Even the most brilliant economists from the best universities around the world won’t agree to The Solution to the current crisis. The economy is a non-linear multi-parametrical problem.
Since the dawn of modern science, scientists have developed complex mathematical models trying to reproduce real life problems in order to provide answers. The methodology is quite simple. You break down one large unfathomable problem into many small and sizeable problems. In other words, break down the-nobody-understands-how-it-damn-works non-linear multi-parametrical problem into kindergarten problems. Then you string the whole list of small problems back together and analyze the whole thing as a single unit, playing with the simple easy-to-understand problems one at a time.

This methodology works quite well most of the time. It has taken us a long way, from the struggles of constant starvation of the medieval dark ages into modern societies’ world of plenty. But it does have its pitfalls as well. Sometimes this kind of thinking, not only does not bring us to right answer, it could also take us deeper into the problem.
Multi-parametrical problems are hard to handle, even for the most brilliant and intelligent minds. Without the help of a pen and a piece of paper, the brightest people are overwhelmed by a problem with more than two or three simultaneous input data. Since the human brain does not feel comfortable dealing with what it does not control, we fall into the trap of oversimplifying complex problems. We would rather deal with simple problems, one input and one output only, easy to explain, easy to grasp, easy to deal with. This is the case especially in the public debate. If there are no jobs, well, let the government create them. If the sales don’t cover the costs, well, then increase the sale price. If gas emissions are the problem, well then increase vehicles gas efficiency, and so on. Unfortunately, many of these simple solutions to complex problems may lead to unexpected results.

This leads us to the Paradox of the farmers’ leaking pipe. One would expect that in an irrigated farming valley, by fixing the leaking pipes, the farmers would reduce their water use. That looks like a pretty and straightforward answer to the farmers’ problem. Well, this is not quite the case. In many dry areas of the world such as California, Southern Spain or Israel, farmers have developed a very successful farming industry by an intelligent use of water. Water is a scarce resource in these areas, and therefore, new methods of transporting it are being devised to reduce water loss. As water piping systems become more efficient through better technology, less water is lost and water can be more cheaply transported from further away regions. As a result, fields that in the past were left barren since they were not economically viable are now being irrigated and farmed. The net result is an increase in the absolute demand of water by the farmers. The primary goal sought by fixing the leak – to reduce water use – backfired. Water consumption is being boosted by the very same measures implemented to tame it. Today, in these areas, the demand for water has increased so many folds that many underground aquifers are becoming exhausted and even many rivers don’t reach the oceans any more due to over exploitation of the water resources. For the multi-parametrical problem, a simple answer may lead to the wrong result.

Today humanity is facing new challenges, global warming, obese populations, untreated toxic waste, unsustainable unemployment rates, traffic jams, ocean garbage accumulation, and many more. The public demands simple answers to complex problems. Many of our world leaders, unaware of the Paradox of the farmers’ leaking pipe, are under the sink fixing the water leak with a crescent wrench in hand. They are applying the mono-parametrical thinking to complex and multifaceted problems. In the meantime, the fracture between what needs to be done and what is being done is becoming as visible as the plumber’s crack.

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