Paralyzed by Nuance

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I drew the picture above not to prove my artistic abilities but to serve as a prop for a thought experiment.

First I showed the picture to my almost three year old son and asked him what he saw. “A red robot,” he immediately said before demanding a snack and commandeering my phone. I then showed it to my four year old son and asked him the same question. He paused briefly, looked at me quizzically and said “A robot?”

Later in the evening I showed the picture to my twelve-year old daughter who is preparing to enter the 8th grade complete with a daily schedule filled entirely with advanced placement classes. She is exceedingly intelligent and has a bright future ahead of her.

Yet she paused for an even longer period of time than both of my boys combined. She looked at me and asked “What do you mean?” I again asked her to simply tell me what she saw. She gigled nervously and said she didn’t know what I wanted her to do. “Tell me what you see,” I encouraged her again. “Is it a robot?” she asked shyly. “Yes honey, it is.” “High five,” I said as she slapped my hand and went off to bed.

Later still I asked my wife to tell me what I’d drawn and she told me to take out the trash. Thus endeth the experiment. But despite its lack of scientific sophistication (and full participation), it was a success nonetheless.

It’s a phenomenon that often plays out in the world of sports, particularly in college football. The programs that implement systems designed to free their players to act rather than analyze are often the most successful. “Paralysis by analysis” is a phrase bandied about in locker rooms but also in corporate board rooms and is applicable in virtually every facet of life. My two sons, still free from the clutter accumulated from years of study and exposure to agency, were quick to answer my simple question.

My daughter, however, paused. It’s not her fault, but rather a natural reaction borne from years of preparatory testing and teachings that imbibe that the simplest solution to any problem is rarely, if ever, correct. The academic environment in which she lives has conditioned her to conclude that no answer can survive on the thin edge of Occam’s Razor. Instead, answers to questions simple or complex, must be safely wrapped in nuance and rationalizations.

And as I get older I notice this proclivity for nuance more and more in the world around me. Perhaps it’s simply the part of my brain that longs to sit on the porch and yell at the kids on my lawn, but most likely there’s more to it.

Take this recent story by Danielle Kurtzleben posted at Vox.com. The title, 5 Reasons why the shrinking GDP isn’t a reason to panic is meant to assuage any angst felt by Vox’s readers over the terrible news that GDP contracted by an astounding 2.9% during the 1st quarter this year. And while she has every right to do so, her desperate search for any bland, opaque statistic that would support her story’s title and overarching thesis is nuanced rationalization at its finest.

For instance, according to Ms. Kurtzleben and Vox, a lot of the blame for the drop in GDP was due to the weather.

Weather accounted for somewhere between 50 and 100 percent of the GDP pullback, says PNC senior economist Gus Faucher. When polar vortexes and multiple feet of snow keep people stuck at home, they just can’t get out to buy groceries or see the doctor. That’s only a temporary hit to the economy — everyone has to go to the doctor and buy food again at some point.

Now, for the sake of time and in an effort to cap a burgeoning word count, I won’t address the first sentence except to say that somewhere between 50 and 100 percent of the time my clock is right at least once per day.

The real justification to focus on, and one that should be garnering more national attention if true, is the claim that for an entire three months much of the nation was unable to get out to buy groceries or see the doctor. It’s an incredible testament to the toughness and grit of Americans. We should all be in awe of that vast, silent majority that went an entire 90 days without food or healthcare. Greatest generation be damned, our country just went on a three month fast and there is somewhere between a 1 and 99% chance (because nothing is absolute) that their sacrifice impacted the economy.

Of course Ms. Kurtzleben’s rationalization is a reach, but serves as a glorious illustration to my greater point.  Rather than identifying the crude drawing of the red robot and identifying it as such, Ms. Kurtzleben twists and gyrates through an entire article in an attempt to wrap the fact that our economy suffered a striking downturn into a softer, more palatable list of five nuanced rationalizations explaining why things aren’t nearly as bad as one might think.

The fact that the list is composed of five reasons is telling as well. Why not six? Why not stop at four? Are there exactly five reasons that serve as justification to prove a point for the website that promotes itself as only offering commentary from the smartest voices among us?

The point here is not to denegrate the work of Ms. Kurtzleben, or Vox Media. In fact, I am compensated by Vox for work that I do at SB Nation (which should serve as sufficient proof that Vox doesn’t limit itself to only the best and brightest).

But it is an attempt to point out the fallacy (and potential danger) in a society that is comfortable in immersing itself in a web of perpetual nuance. Whether it’s impacting policy decisions, or influencing supposed educated information intended for public consumption, the paralysis suffered from overanalyzing data and massaging facts to fit one’s preconceived biases and presumed outcomes is crippling our country.

Because while the best and brightest at Vox tell us that:

 “Still, this downturn looks temporary. Some economists foresee an annual rate of growth of 3.5 or even 4 percent in the second quarter.”

There are those that don’t have time to patiently wait out the storm based on the prediction by “some” economists.

There are those that don’t have time to twist data, or worse, use sweeping generalizations like “some” or “somewhere between 50 and 100%” to help them sleep better at night, comfortable in the fact that no matter how vague they might be, the numbers say that everything is ok.

Because they are the ones that live on the thin edge of Occam’s Razor and continue to struggle to get by in this economy. They aren’t here to heal the earth and slow the rise of the sea–they just want to feed their families.

And I’m confident that if I showed them my crude picture, they’d quickly tell me exactly what it is. Then they’d likely tell me where I can go, but that’s beside the point completely.

While considering this piece I naturally thought of the frivolousness involved in showing my kids a picture of a robot and turning it into a broader policy discussion. I have no scientific data to support my claim and therefore a theory like this would be best proven with funding from a large government grant. A Blue Ribbon Panel would be appointed to oversee a broad, decade long study of the dangers of nuance led by a prestigious Ivy League instititution. They would then launch a nationwide road show, with presentations of their data tailored to satisfy the desires of their audience. Rationalization would bear even more, and nuance would metastasize, making my red robot drawing unrecognizable to those with the most formal of educations.

And then I realized that only further proves my point.

 

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