Zettelkasten Forum


Making complexity simple. (yeah, sure...)

I am going to be interviewed for a podcast about design, Systems Thinking, Critical Thinking, and complexity.
I have been so wise to choose an impossible topic: "How do you understand complex topics and explain them in an efficient and effective way for those people who can act to solve wicked problems?"
I know it is just impossible. That's exactly what frustrates me and move me, at the same time.
I was looking for your thoughts, inspirations, quotes, suggestions but also provocations, critiques, pitfalls, traps.
Of course, I am taking into good consideration the continuous efforts I am putting into my Zettelkasten. It grows. In a messy way. With joys and pains. I have one "Ah-a!" for 10 lets down. But I know it's my chance to really augment my brain.

What's your fuel to feed my fire?

Comments

  • Here's how I think of it. Take it with a lump of salt.


    When someone asks "how do you deal with complexity", I was trained to reply "by reducing it". That's probably a very common takeaway when you read about general systems theory. And it may be worth looking into.

    Now what that means in practice is where it gets interesting.

    You cannot transfer complexity 1:1. It's like how you cannot understand the world as-is. The complexity has to be reduced: in the case of humans, we have limited sensory input (one reduction), a couple of filters (another), and on it goes. (Check out some overviews of epistemology; there are folks better suited than me to flesh out the example of episteme.)

    In a simplistic, constructivist description: the world itself is presented through human's limited sensory capabilities and then a mental reconstruction is being made -- a representation that we can understand and interact with. So we never deal with the world per se, but with our representation of the world as we understand it. The reduction step is one part of the puzzle. The other is the re-creation of internal complexity inside the system, aka us humans, through experience. Even our simplistic representation of the world gets richer and more nuanced; never the real deal, but more complex than the representation of a 1-year-old child.

    How do you understand complex topics ...

    -- by reducing the external complexity of the unknown/the world/the topic, and recreating an internal representation with its own complexity --

    ... and explain them in an efficient and effective way for those people who can act to solve wicked problems?

    Now all of that sounds like a bit too much to discuss in one sitting. Richard Feynman did a great job at reducing the complexity of physics and explaining it to others. He employed analogy, metaphor, example, etc. -- that on it's own is a very boring answer ("Well, make analogies and provide examples!") but Feynman and his life and teaching is an interesting sub-topic. I'd explore that a bit in the discussion.

    I don't know what "wicked" means in this context; I recently came across "wicked learning environments" that (Epstein 2019) said he got from (Hogarth 2001), but I haven't checked!, which is:

    [T]he rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both. (Epstein 2019, p 21)

    May or may not be another trail. The approach there is to, well, get some Range to learn to deal with stuff that happens. "Wicked problem solving" sounds oddly specific, and I wouldn't know how anyone could prescribe anything in a podcast to a satisfyable extent.

    • David Epstein (2019): Range. why generalists triumph in a specialized world, New York: Riverhead Books.
    • Robin M Hogarth (2001): Educating intuition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • "How do you understand complex topics and explain them in an efficient and effective way for those people who can act to solve wicked problems?"

    I don't. I never explain anything to people who are the ones who take action. And I never accept anything from a person who does not take action but theorizes about a problem.

    ;)

    I am a Zettler

  • Wow! You're too (s)fast and too effective! This would give me fuel for a season of podcasts.
    Tausend Dank.

  • I am not an expert on this topic and I cannot talk about theory behind this, but I studied my fair share of theoretical physics and tackled some concepts that were quite complex for me, so I can share my experience from the point of understanding. And here I also want to point out that complexity is somewhat individual assessment.

    Whenever I have something that I can't grasp I do:
    1. Find practical examples - seeing how something works in practice helps
    2. Find special cases - those cases live on the edge of complexity, usually they are unique because they rely on the theory, but they have specific conditions so that a big portion of complexity can be reduced with abstraction.
    3. Find more than one explanation of the same thing - sometimes the obstacle is not complexity itself, but the way explanation is phrased. I always look for different authors and textbooks, they will deal with details in a different way, organize info in a different way, and one of them will resonate more with the way I think and connect information internally.
    4. This brings me to the last point, there is no one universal way of explaining something because in order for someone to understand you, you need to use their mental models to describe something to them. Your mental models won't work. So when I am trying to explain something to others, I try to build up complexity instead of reducing it. I start with very simple building blocks that we are familiar with and then combine them into this complex thing I am trying to explain.

    I am not sure how applicable this is for something that is not physics :smiley: But maybe it will spark some thoughts at least! What is the podcast if it is not secret (I would like to listen to it :smile: )

  • Not only this is well explained, but you touched one of the key point where it hurts, to me.
    That's exactly his:

    @ethomasv said:
    4. This brings me to the last point, there is no one universal way of explaining something because in order for someone to understand you, you need to use their mental models to describe something to them. Your mental models won't work. So when I am trying to explain something to others, I try to build up complexity instead of reducing it. I start with very simple building blocks that we are familiar with and then combine them into this complex thing I am trying to explain.

    This is the essence of my motivation and what I like to explore.

    I will post the podcast as soon as ready, thanks for your contribution.

  • @Massimo_Curatella said:
    I have been so wise to choose an impossible topic: "How do you understand complex topics and explain them in an efficient and effective way for those people who can act to solve wicked problems?"

    When I read your topic, I immediately thought of two things:

    1. Something my colleague, Dan Roam, said that has stuck with me: "the person who can best describe the problem is the person best-positioned to solve the problem."

    2. Alan Alda's book, "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?"

    Regarding the first: @ethomasv presents a great example of this in their post above. When we can find a way to understand the problem well enough to describe it effectively to another, that can bring both of us to a place of greater clarity and understanding, where meaningful solutions may begin to be explored. (This is a gross simplification of the idea, I know.)

    Regarding the second: this speaks to being able to explain them in efficient and effective ways for people to be able to take action. Alan Alda's Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stony Brook focuses on helping scientists communicate huge - and wickedly important - ideas in ways that non-scientists can understand.

    Dan's statement focuses on increasing clarity for yourself, which can then be shared with others. Alda's book focus on how to do that sharing in effective ways through connecting, relating, and storytelling.

    Could be good resources for you to check out. Would love to hear your podcast!

    Links:
    The Back of the Napkin
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18881307-the-back-of-the-napkin

    If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40600256-if-i-understood-you-would-i-have-this-look-on-my-face?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=A3GyRCEqCj&rank=1

    Alda Center for Communicating Science
    https://www.aldacenter.org/

  • @jeannelking said:
    When I read your topic, I immediately thought of two things:

    1. Something my colleague, Dan Roam, said that has stuck with me: "the person who can best describe the problem is the person best-positioned to solve the problem."

    This, in particular, is on the spot.

    1. Alan Alda's book, "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?"

    I will have a look at it.

    Could be good resources for you to check out. Would love to hear your podcast!

    Hey @jeannelking, thank you for your contribution, I will consume it with care and I will let you know about it.

    I will post the podcast as soon as it will be online.

    Thank you very much for your brain.

  • edited August 27

    Here is a recent article that may also be of interest to you on complex systems. Describing them as a way to open up a better future.

  • @jamesrregan said:
    Here is a recent article that may also be of interest to you on complex systems. Describing them as a way to open up a better future.

    Thanks, James. It's in my reading list.

  • @Massimo_Curatella I believe Richard Feynman had a quote along the lines of -- if he wasn't able to teach a physics idea in a first-year undergraduate class, he didn't really understand it himself. So, one tactic might be to strive for that level of understanding and clarity on an idea first for ourselves, before we attempt to enlighten others :)

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    @Massimo_Curatella I believe Richard Feynman had a quote along the lines of -- if he wasn't able to teach a physics idea in a first-year undergraduate class, he didn't really understand it himself. So, one tactic might be to strive for that level of understanding and clarity on an idea first for ourselves, before we attempt to enlighten others :)

    Yes, absolutely, that quote is a guiding light to me. In fact, I put it in practice with 6-year olds any time I can.

  • This is to say thank you to all of you who contributed to my adventure.
    It's the story of how I've prepared for my podcast interview on Making Complexity Simple
    https://curatella.com/preparing-making-complexity-simple/

  • I've finally published the video and the edited transcription of my Podcast of Complexity, Design, and Education hosted by Kevin Richard.

    Enjoy:

    https://curatella.com/simply-complexity-podcast-with-kevin-richard-and-massimo-curatella/

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