The Systems Perspective and the Curse of the Magic Bullet

The Systems Perspective and the Curse of the Magic Bullet

One of my favourite quotes ever (which I will paraphrase slightly) is from H. L. Mencken. It goes like this:

“For every complex and difficult problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, easy to understand, and wrong.”

I like that quote, not just because the ending is unexpected, but because it accurately describes the conventional wisdom about large complex problems and what we get wrong about them.

I grew up with a very romantic view of problem solving. Probably from listening to a lot of stories (and conventional wisdom) about brave people who stood up against evil empires and overthrew them through courage and determination, as if that was all that was needed to bring about massive social change.

Growing up I honestly thought that there were very simple answers to complex problems. The real problem would be getting everyone united to bring down the corrupt people in charge. All we really need to do is rally the good people together under one banner and march on the city capital in order to put things right. Once the powers-that-be see the sheer number of people who are protesting against them and recognise the groundswell of voices united under this positive ideal then they will have no choice but to give up their power and resign.

Then we can instigate change. We can bring down this corrupt, terrible institution and bring in something better. Something fairer. Something newer. After all, if the status quo is bad, then any change must be good, right?


The problem with my thinking wasn’t just that it was simplistic (which it was) but that I saw problems as specific things that were separate from all the other complex issues that contributed to them and made them problems in the first place.

This tendency to look at areas in society as separate from each other and therefore seen in isolation leads to the idea that we can ‘fix’ certain problems without it influencing anything else. For example, I really want the government to improve the health system, but I don’t want them to take any money out of the education, farming, infrastructure, defence, social services, or any other areas. I’m sure that’s possible right?

This is the difficulty with the magic bullet approach, that is, the idea that the answer to a broad range of problems will be a single, simple, easy to understand solution. It sounds great. It sounds like that’s what we should be looking for. If there is a problem with one area in society then that is obviously the area that needs to be changed and that is obviously where the solution needs to be applied to. This is the area that we need to focus our resources on, which means that we can safely ignore (even just for the moment) all the other areas that lead into it. Unfortunately though, as they say, everything is connected.

For example: What is the main cause of poverty? Is it lack of money or resources? Is it the lack of good financial decisions? Is it just bad luck? Is it being born into the wrong neighbourhood? Is it the result of misfortune? Of intergenerational issues?

If there is a simple answer to solving poverty, then which one of the above causes is the correct one? Which one of these should we be trying to solve?

We can’t solve all of them. We simply don’t have the money or resources. It becomes tragically ionic that we can’t solve something like poverty because we can’t afford to.

Terry Pratchet once described it in one of his discworld books called Guards Guards, where the main character, police chief Sam Vimes bemoans the fact that the cheap pair of boots that he owns are wearing out. If he had money he could afford to buy a more expensive pair which wouldn’t wear out as fast and he’d actually save money in the long run. The reason he didn’t was because his current boots would wear out long before he could afford to save up for an expensive pair. The reason he was poor wasn’t because he spent his money unwisely, he was actually spending it as wisely as he could in the circumstances, but he stayed poor because he couldn’t afford not to be.

Issues like poverty are influenced by a whole bunch of factors: History, education, employment, entrepreneurship, local community, financial understanding, local government, crime, creativity, innovation, and the understanding that what we do affects everyone around us, like throwing a stone into a pond.

If we go through school and are taught in a way that indicates that everything is separate, and that individual problems are discreet things that need to be handled on their own, then we will continually be frustrated by the fact that problems just keep on coming out of nowhere.

For example, lack of money and resources isn’t the cause of poverty, it’s a result of it. If we approach poverty with the mindset that we need to give people more money and resources then we are simply treating a symptom and the problem will keep on happening.

In our education system, we tend to study things in a piecemeal fashion. We separate disciplines and areas as though they have no bearing on each other and then wonder why things change in unexpected ways. Why do the plans and solutions that we developed and that worked so well in discreet studies and laboratory environments end up in disaster when we try to apply them to the real world situations?

How can we change this? How can we understand how all of these areas work together? I honestly think that in schools there needs to be more of an emphasis on systems thinking and how different aspects of a system works together. Instead of focussing on disciplines as discreet things we should be focussing on issues and problems in society and then seeing how different disciplines influence that area. In this way we can see how those different areas of study work in context and how they interact with each other.

This in turn would require a much more general view of the world and a different way of seeing how thing interact and influence each other. It may mean that people growing up through the education system would be less inclined to specialise. Students may pursue certain interests but they would probably end up having a much broader understanding of how their particular field of study affects (and is affected by) all the other fields around them.

As it stands, education tends to promote the idea of amassing a lot of knowledge about a relatively small area with only a passing understanding of how other unrelated areas work. This can lead to a tendency of over simplifying our thinking about other the areas, and we assume that the government should be able to solve the nation’s issues because after all, “How hard can it be?”

Having a deeper understanding of how all these different aspects of society fit together and influence problems should not only allow us to understand others who have experience in those aspects but also to make better informed decisions about solutions to issues that affect all of us.

That’s something I wish I was taught at school.

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