The phrase of the day is “legitimate complexity.”

Stay with me. This is useful. Suffer through this quote.

“Science shares with the democratic temper an antagonism to all that is obscure, vague, occult, and inaccessible, but it also gives rise to complexity and specialization, which then remove knowledge from the reach of lay understanding.” (Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Basic Books, 1982, 59)

Some things have legitimate complexity. Like whatever is causing the Check Engine light to be on in my car.  There is no hope of discerning the cause because it takes a special ‘car computer’ to do that. This is a pity since people used to be able to diagnose and fix their own cars’ ailments. Not so anymore. It’s a loss. Knowledge of the inner workings of the modern car has been removed “from the reach of lay understanding.”

There are other things that have legitimate complexity but not as many as we think. Separating conjoined twins. Managing the machine that is walking around Mars looking for water. Achieving a sustainable peace in the Middle East. There are probably others.

My argument is this. We think too many things have legitimate complexity and because we do, we give up on understanding things too quickly. We let the keepers of the complexity scare us off. Then they build higher and higher walls around the complexity until we are afraid to tie our own shoes lest we do it incorrectly.

If we believe that knowledge is power, we probably need to be very spare in what we hand off to experts to figure out for us, particularly anything that involves the places and people we love. Or ourselves. Things like health and mental health. Who to marry and when. Where to live, where to travel. How to raise children. How to be an old person. How to be happy and joyful. How to die and grieve.

It’s scary, though, being expected to know more and to trust our own instincts. It makes us more responsible for what happens next. I contemplate all this while thinking of the times I handed over the power to others because I thought I couldn’t wrap my head around something big or complicated or terrifying. I could have, I think. I have that capacity. What would it have changed?

So that’s the phrase of the day: “legitimate complexity.” Mull that over.


5 Comments on “Puzzle

  1. Jan, this is such an important discussion and so clearly articulated. It’s timely for me, too. I’m teaching a course on “research” to undergraduate social work students. They’re struggling at the moment to make sense of “expert” knowledge in research articles. I suspect many are intimidated and think they’re not up to the task of understanding experts, and certainly not smart enough or qualified to question the trustworthiness of what the experts say is true. Much of it is simply rather unimportant information masked in statistics and obscure elitist language to make the authors appear erudite and worthy of tenure.

    • It is interesting how often we back away from complexity and just go for the bottom line: so what am I supposed to do next? It can be so nice to have other people do the hard thinking. But, in the end, it takes the real fun (and struggle) out of it.

  2. Interesting thought to muse. As we get older, I think we have a tendency to hand over problems to others to solve. Consider posting this at the Senior Salon for others to think over.

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