Friday, 12 June 2015 13:56

Simplicity and stupidity, complexity and clarity

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I’m about three quarters of the way through Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. This novel has somewhat over 1.2 million words. It’s long - very long - and rather little happens in it. It is made up of a series of relatively trivial events bound together by the author’s observation and comments on those events. It’s not Game of Thrones.

I can try to give you a simple explanation of the book: “self-obsessed, sickly, rich guy’s musing on life and love in early twentieth century Paris”, but such a simple explanation hardly gives you a flavour of the book. I can’t really give you a good simple explanation of the book. You need to read some of it if you want to get a sense – and quite a lot of it to get a real understanding.


I mention this because there is a myth going round, and I think it the sort of myth that supports lazy thinking. This myth is: “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it”. This is, simply, nonsense. But it is one of those difficult to deal with nonsenses in that it is sometimes true and it is often said for good reasons.

When it’s true that “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it

It is often true because many people communicate badly and use overly complex ways of explaining events and ideas. Quite often these overly complex explanations are a reflection of that person’s poor understanding and unstructured thinking. They may also be a sign of that person’s lack of empathy and ability to understand what is meaningful to their audience. On those two grounds the statement “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it” is both true and worth saying.

But there are some aspects of the world that just are complex, and any simple explanation is bound to miss out some critical aspects of this complexity.

Simple and wrong?

A more complex re-write: a failure to explain something simply may be a sign that you don’t understand it or are a bad communicator. It may also reflect the fact that what is being explained is truly complex.

I think anyone who believes “if you can’t explain something simply you don’t understand it” is making one of the following mistakes:

  1. “Simply” means the same as “clearly”. It doesn’t!
  2. Everything is simple. It isn’t!
  3. Lack of simplicity is a reflection of the explainer’s lack of understanding. Well maybe or maybe not.

For anyone who always seeks simplicity, it’s always worth remembering HL Mencken’s saying:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.

The benefits and limitations of simple explanations

I am not against seeking simple explanations.

I try to explain things simply. I advise others to explain as simply as possible. I agree that simplicity indicates mastery of a subject. Also an ability to explain the complex in simple terms shows you have taken time to really think it through and structure your thoughts.

I rely on simple explanations for a whole host of things that I am not an expert in. I love listening to specialists who can give simple explanations of relatively complex phenomenon. I am irritated intensely by poor writing when someone cannot find clear ways of explaining. But I understand that simple explanations only take you so far. I understand that simplicity is not the same as clarity.

So what’s the problem? My concern is that the statement “if you can’t explain something simply you don’t understand it” is not just a request for people to understand better and explain simpler, but also is an extension of the view that everything can be understood in terms of simple bite sized chunks. Well, sorry, it can’t.

Let’s look at one of the favourite tools for giving a simple explanation - metaphors. Good metaphors can be really powerful. But when you understand something through a metaphor, remember the metaphor is a way of getting sufficient insight - it does not give a full understanding. And when used out of contexts such metaphors can block understanding.

For instance, generations of school children have learnt about the interaction between atomic particles and molecules in terms of billiard balls. Think of gas molecules bouncing around in a chamber. This is a great metaphor. But as anyone who has done even a smattering of more advanced physics knows, particles are not billiard balls. The metaphor is useful, but within limits. In some situations, explaining such interactions in terms of billiard balls actually shows a lack of understanding.

The best that we can say is that “if you can’t explain something clearly, you do not really understand it”. But we need to be aware that clarity is relative to the audience. What is clear to post-doctoral physicists will often be complete gobbledegook to me. That does not mean they don’t understand what they are talking about.

Simplicity and stupidity, complexity and laziness

So please:

1.       Learn to differentiate between foolish speakers giving bad explanations and things that are truly complex

2.       Applaud the speaker who can give an understanding of the complex clearly and simply

3.       Be humble enough to accept that whilst simple explanations, models and metaphors may give sufficient insight you shouldn’t kid yourself that you always have a full understanding

4.       Accept that some things really are complex. If you really want to understand such things beyond the superficial, you need to do the work. For some subjects, that will be lots of work dealing with complex concepts.

5.       Encourage clarity of thought and speech, but don’t mindlessly repeat “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it”

Clarity is always worth seeking. Simple explanations should be used when they can be. But often the desire for simplicity is a reflection of intellectual laziness.


This Article was first published by Richard on LinkedIn


Read 7381 times Last modified on Friday, 12 June 2015 14:01
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at Information about his company can be found at His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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