’Tis Complicated

Ajay Goel
7 min readFeb 2, 2022

The other day I was chatting with a friend in Canada, who, on principle, refuses to be vaccinated. Obviously, I found his perspective quite opposite to mine, and we discussed at length his choices. At the end of the conversation, I kept wondering how we end up with contrasting conclusions, given the same facts and circumstances. All the more when it involves one of the most precious things an individual cherishes–one’s own life.

But then, we live in a multidimensional world. We look at an issue from a narrow prism of our limited knowledge, biases, values, or experiences — modern-day problems often prevent any person from fully understanding them.

Consider this: a friend in a WA group comments on someone’s rising weight; another promptly suggests Intermittent Fasting. But the expert opinion may pitch expanding girth to biology and emotional factors, easy transportation, convenience foods, changing social norms, and so on.

Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

While looking at an issue, most people overestimate scientific temperament but underrate its limitation when applied to social or human conditions. Pure sciences give definite answers and a 2+2 is always four. Yet social problems are a lot more complex, with far too many changing variables. Here, a 2+2 could be anything.

For example, a controlled experiment in a lab is easy, say, trying to find the water forced out by a ball dunked in a glass jar. Now let’s try repeating this in an outdoor bathtub, during rain, with two kids splashing inside… get the idea?

For that reason, we explore partial narratives while the elephant is always much bigger. That’s why experts and opinion polls often get the public mood or election predictions totally wrong.

Kruger Dunning effect

These big gaps in our thinking and opinions are a chastening thought, and wise men have a term for it–KD Effect (see above).

[Personal side note - At many social parties, if the malt is good, I find myself at the peak of the curve (‘I know everything’). And yet, the very next morning, while nursing the hangover, I tumble down the trajectory (‘there’s more to it than I thought’).]

The reality is that we don’t have enough time to go deep into every topic. We are either too busy trying to put bread on the table or are not interested in making the effort. Instead, we create simpler stories to make sense of a complex world.

We believe what we want to believe, and mould facts accordingly. We cherry-pick the data that neatly fit into our narrative. Accordingly, some conclude that the Earth is flat, vaccinations are large pharma conspiracy, all politicians are crooked, and corporations are organized thievery–and then find enough confirming data to reinforce that view.

We also tell these ‘stories’ to fit in, to be admired amongst our friends and colleagues. We often take positions far above our pay grade, just to hang our hat on. That’s our instinct to ‘belong’, to have an identity, to feel valued.

Actually, this instinct to make things easy has existed since the birth of civilization. To simplify life, humans have been developing heuristics. These are mental shortcuts that allow us to make quick judgment calls based on rules of thumb. They help us navigate day-to-day behavior that requires performing countless small decisions within a limited timeframe. Heuristics save time and intellectual energy, so the mind can focus on bigger and better things.

To illustrate — “Carry an umbrella when it’s cloudy outside” removes the need to repeat the decision-making every day we encounter rainy weather. “Don’t let the children be out after dark” serves as a shortcut to keep the young out of harm’s way. “Save 5% of your income in order to have a happy retirement” makes one prepare for the future. These are examples of thumb rules that make sense.

However, not all these shortcuts to thinking may pass scrutiny. For instance — We also associate high prices with quality. We believe an educated individual is rational. That the Diamonds are forever. We judge the person by her dress and the book by its cover.….

These thumb rules can slide from incorrect inferences to outright biases or superstitions.

Let’s go down that path some more — All NRIs are rich. Girls that wear tight dresses are sluts. Democracy is the best form of government; Free trade prospers everybody. Modi Hai To Mumkin Hai. Traveling on Wednesday brings poor luck. Wearing a stone on the third finger wards off bad luck….

Instances of heuristics and simplistic thinking abound around us.

We start judging people in binaries, forgetting the multitudes they possess. We put them on a pedestal or relegate them to bins, rejecting a more nuanced opinion. Take, for example, Gandhi: he is made the father of a nation and put beyond criticism, even though his views on the caste system, economics, etc. were very regressive. Nehru is straitjacketed as a Messiah of Modern India, or a dolt, but in reality, he was more complex–he shaped a liberal India post-independence, yet failed on China policy and in socialist economics. We look at India’s freedom from the narrow prism of the nationalist movement, but there were other compelling economic reasons for Britain to give up its colonies — Hitler’s war and damages had the UK nailed to the wall.

Pick any news story and multiple perspectives show up, that may not be covered.

A TV channel laments the low conviction rate in Rape cases in India. But is it because of misogynistic judges, or sketchy badly drafted FIR, or were those claims false to start with — filed by women to take advantage of the law? — Needs more analysis.

A recent report quotes data showing the percentage of homes where more than one person is employed has fallen from 35% in 2016 to just 24% in 2021. Is it because the wage levels have fallen so low that families think it would be better if members did unpaid housework rather than seek poorly paid employment outside? Or have the wage levels risen so much that women do not feel the need to step out and contribute to family income? — Same data — opposite conclusions.

In India, Remdesivir & Ivermectin are still heavily prescribed for Covid treatment, whereas international medical journals have dismissed their efficacy long back. Is it because of a lack of scientific temperament in India or is it superior medical knowledge within India? Is it because the circumstances of India are unique (poor water quality/ pollution), or that the Indian Doctors have a propensity to over-medicate? Are Pharma companies playing games to make more money? Is it just Herd behavior of being ‘Better be safe than sorry? — I don’t know but would like to.

In short, the real world is complex, and human nature is to look for a simple single answer.

And if things weren’t interesting enough, now Internet has arrived. It came with a promise of world knowledge at our fingertips, but we instead have ended up with Fake News!

While great for freedom of expression, Internet has also created obfuscation. Today everyone can publish what they choose, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers and editors who used to filter the noise and verify the facts. We now swim in an abundance of unverified data, opinions, half-truths, and getting to the reality is a bigger challenge.

We believe what we want to believe, and the Internet is a treasure trove. To seek an answer to a complex issue that resonates with us, we are willing to accept any ridiculous explanation or wild-assed theory.

To compound the problem, there are algorithms that push confirming data into our echo chambers. People double down on the view that they may erroneously hold because it has been confirmed so many times within their chamber.

Compare this to 500 years back, when man lived in a village where the priest had the only book. The oral history and individual experiences were the sum total of knowledge exchanged each evening at the village plaza.

But now the internet has made proximity irrelevant. The world has become an oyster, and one can identify and take part in a community spread across the globe. You can find whatever you want to believe in, however bizarre, unreal, or malicious it is.

Remember the tragedy of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death that made headlines some time back? Speculations ran wild and theories included -

- He is alive, but — the one that died was actually the body match that he had created through ‘Double Slit Experiment of Quantum Physics’

- He was murdered because he had information on nefarious doings of a powerful politician’s son

- He was executed because he designed an app like PUBG, which another Bombay top hero wanted rights of.

- That he was eliminated for refusing to agree to a grand plan of UP government that wanted to shift the film industry to NOIDA

- He got on the wrong side of a drug deal

- He had depression

In this post-truth era, it is becoming tough to parse chaff from the grain, when WA University dispenses wisdom every morning, without fail.

At the same time, it is impossible to get a handle on all the subjects — politics, religion, sports, cooking, arts, investing, and a million others. Someone’s interest could be cricket, another’s regional cuisine, and yet another may be fascinated with stock markets and money.

To solve this dilemma, I suggest we choose. There are times to be a mile wide and an inch deep, but sometimes it’s better to be an inch wide and a mile deep.

If cryptocurrency is a mere drawing-room topic, a cursory, conspiracy-laden (or utopian) theory is perhaps fine, but if one wants to be an investor, he should go further… and much deeper.

If it’s your personal health, relationships, or finance, our position should be more informed, backed by experts, and not gleaned from well-meaning inebriated friends or WA University.

The process of deep dive takes some time but is always gratifying, and humbling. The more I learn of an issue, the less assertive I become from my original position. It makes one modest, and perhaps more authentic.

Whatever our passion or interest, the words of Charles Dickens from Great Expectations resonate: “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”



Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.