Argumentum ad Simplicitate

“I’m a simple man…”

“It’s really a simple matter of…”

“…That settles it.” (Following a too-brief summary of one side of an argument.)

I’ve encountered this “argument” (if you can call it that) frequently enough that I believe it worthy of advocating for recognition as a logical fallacy. I would call it an argumentum ad simplicitate, or an “appeal to simplicity”—or perhaps just the “simple man fallacy.”

What’s a Fallacy?

Logical fallacies are a fascinating part of everyday conversation, as well as more formal discourse. A bare definition is an argument that is invalid because it uses faulty reasoning. There are a lot of fallacies; some of them relate to the specific form of an argument, such as equating something with a high probability as being absolute; others (by far the longer list) are related to the content of the argument itself.

A simple example of the latter is the “fallacy of division” which argues that something that is true of a whole thing must also be true of its parts. It’s easy to recognize in a simple example, such as “Airplanes can fly, and therefore an airplane engine must be able to fly.” But it gets harder when it appears, for example, in stereotypes or broad categorizations of groups of people or things—and more complicated still when we realize that a common literary device (called synecdoche) employs the same mode or style of division, but not fallaciously: for example, when we refer to a certain portion of an orchestra as the “strings.”

We encounter fallacies all the time, and often we don’t recognize them as fallacious (faulty) reasoning because they can be quite compelling and seem to be sound.

The Fallacy of Simplicity

Humanity has an inherent drive to favor the simple. Generally, things that are neat, tidy, and easy to understand have great appeal, and this is especially true when it comes to ideas. One of the attractions of things like TED Talks (and also one of the strongest criticisms against them) is that they take complex ideas and attempt to boil them down into a 20-minute presentation—sometimes, maybe too often, over-simplifying both the problem and its proposed solutions.

[Disclaimer: I happen to like TED Talks a lot, and find many of them to be both interesting and innovative. Almost invariably, however, the ones that I find the most compelling are those that either deal with creativity—an area that has, at least, much softer boundaries of what is right or wrong, true or false—or those that acknowledge that they are addressing only one small part of a problem with a solution that is more involved than can be offered in such a short vignette.]

This appeal to simplicity frequently extends to a reference to Occam’s Razor: “the simple solution is usually the right one.” William of Ockham was a philosopher and theologian, and his principle was intended as a guide for theoretical models, not as an adjudication for final concepts or conclusions. A more complete statement of Occam’s Razor includes a couple of vital qualifications.

“All other things being equal, simpler explanations are usually preferable to complex ones.”

Did you catch those? The first is the idea of “all other things being equal.” How often is this the case? Rarely, in the encounters with the Simple Man Fallacy that I have had. Some things may be equal—not least, the desire of those holding differing positions to get to an agreeable conclusion. But for all things to be equal would be a peculiar circumstance indeed, in most cases. Ockham spoke of this being relevant “among competing hypotheses.” In actuality, many hypotheses (often simple ones) must be dismissed because they frankly cannot compete with others that, yes, are more complex, but also are more reasonable.

The second, and equally important, qualification is that simpler explanations are usually preferable. Not always. Even among competing, equal hypotheses, sometimes the more complex one must prevail, as it is the only one that can offer a true solution to the problem.

So three factors must mitigate our inner drive for simplicity: the recognition that theoretical concepts are not always equivalent to the final, practical ones; that not all concepts or factors are “equal” in their value, importance, or viability; and that, even when they are “equal” the simpler answer is not always the correct one.

Various Forms

The Appeal to Simplicity fallacy takes many forms, always insidious erosions of an earnest effort to achieve a sound conclusion. The fundamental concept under each is based on the following syllogism:

Simple things are always best

My position is one of simplicity

Therefore, my position is best.

This may come in the form of a logical reduction: “Let me show you the simplest, and therefore the best, solution.” This is a frequent tool of politicians, whose arguments to perform one simple action to solve a complex problem are the stuff of rallies and stump-speeches. It can show up in other contexts as well, of course. This form is similar to Reducto ad Absurdum (more on this in a bit). It convinces because it reduces both the problem and the solution to over-simplistic “summaries” that resonate with listeners.

“Those illegals are stealing jobs away from hard-working Americans, and so we have to stop the stream of illegal immigration.”
“Abortion is immoral and unethical; clearly we should outlaw it.”

It might also take the form of a logical comparison: “Mine is the simple way; yours is more complex, and therefore inferior.” This is more frequently found in advertising or in regard to topics that seem esoteric to many. This form is similar to other fallacies of comparison, and employs the same logical tactics. It is effective because it sets up an unfair picture (often a Straw Man) of the opposing view, countering it with the “simple” approach.

“Why buy four different tools to do the job that our all-in-one solution can do more simply and effectively?”
“You want to throw a multi-point plan at this issue, when really the solution is straightforward…”

It also sometimes appears in the form of a dismissal: “I’m a simple person, and I see it this way.” The implication being, of course, that because simplicity is best, the “simple man” will have the superior perspective and thus the correct solution. This form usually shows up in one-on-one discourse, whether in person or via some form of media, private or public. It is similar to many of the Ad Hominem fallacies, in that it represents an attack upon the person as much as, if not more than, the person’s argument itself—however, it can also fold in the reduction or comparison aspect as well.

“I understand where you’re coming from; but I’m a simple man, and I see it this way…”
“The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Simple or Absurd?

Astute readers and the more logically-minded will recognize a similarity of this proposed fallacy to another: the Reductio ad Absurdum fallacy, or “Reduction to the Absurd.” This fallacy is similar, but quite different in fundamental ways.

Reductio ad Absurdum is based on the reasoning that states, “you must accept my position, or else risk accepting a position that is demonstrably absurd.” This is typically on the basis of one of three conclusions: the alternative is false; the alternative is, itself, absurd; or the alternative is an anomaly.

A classic example is: “The earth cannot be flat; otherwise, people would fall off the edge.” There obviously are good reasons to offer as evidence that the earth is not flat, and even a sound scientific principle (called hydrostatic equilibrium) for why an object with gravity will pull itself into a sphere. But the logic underlying the above is insufficient, to say the least.

The difference between an Appeal to Simplicity and the Reduction to the Absurd is that the latter relies upon the clear and unambiguous shortcoming of the comparison; that which is absurd is expected to be recognized as such. The former, however, cannot rely upon the obvious absurdity of an opponent’s view (often because it is actually the preferable or right conclusion, which is why the arguer must resort to fallacious reasoning in the first place!).

Also: while an Appeal to Simplicity argument may try to paint the more complex argument as ridiculous because of its complexity, it doesn’t require an outright contradiction as the basis of its claim. A Reductio ad Absurdum argument, on the other hand, must demonstrate an inherent contradiction within the alternative that it presents.

What to Do?

Whether we recognize this as a true fallacy or categorize it as a subset under a variety of existing fallacies, we must acknowledge that this form of argumentation is poor reasoning and unhelpful to the ultimate goal of finding a functional and right conclusion.

Thus, stop preferring the simple! Very few things are truly simple, and the solutions to problems are almost never among them. A complex and complicated world requires complex thought.

Also: realize that simple steps may be part of a complex solution. There is a place for simplistic actions or ideas, but they don’t occur in isolation; they integrate with other actions and ideas (some equally simple, others more elaborate) into a composite solution.

Finally, stop thinking of yourself as a “simple person”—you aren’t. If you’ve read this far, you have thought through ideas and concepts that are far too involved to ever qualify as “simple.” (Or, alternatively, consider it this way: if you are truly that “simple” then perhaps the discussion in which you are inclined to respond, “I’m a simple person…” is too complex for you to add anything of value.)