Keep it simple, stupid!

Sometimes, keeping it too simple works against forward progress. While there is no need to make things unnecessarily complicated, we must work to ensure we don't dumb things down so much that people expect easy solutions, accept weak ones or buy into faulty conclusions.

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The KISS acronym has long held my attention. As a college student, it was applied to me as in "Hey, Kiss … That's enough studying, let's go for a beer at Ole's Tavern." The term continues to be used in engineering design circles. The electromechanical simplicity of recent Apple products and the Amazon Kindle reflects this concept very well. Related terms include "user-friendly" and "easy-to-service." Simple design is elegant design as applied to many products and (especially) to the user interface for software. 

The contrary notions are described as feature creep, whereby engineers add capability that few want now or may ever want. We do it because we can. Projects often fall behind because the goals change after the project was well underway. A common refrain over my career has been, "Why didn't marketing tell us they wanted that feature six months ago when it was easy?" The ultimate is a Rube Goldberg designation, where one gets things done in the most complicated way possible, using the largest number of steps. Here at Purdue, our engineering students hold contests to do exactly that for the simplest of tasks. It's great fun.

KISS arose at the famous skunk works for Lockheed aviation, where many aviation innovations were first tried. Success in combat frequently depended on quick repairs in the field with less sophisticated tools. Putting things together simply is by no means stupid. On the contrary, it is brilliant, as any iPod user knows and earlier generations knew about the versatile and repairable WWII Jeeps.

What stimulated my thinking here were the many retrospectives about the year just passed. I've come to the conclusion that KISS, focused on design, has been broadened to include the interpretation of events and challenges. The rampant tendency to Make It Simple Stupid (MISS) or Present It Simply Stupid (PISS) is annoying me. We've tended in this direction for many years. Investigative journalism is replaced by 140-character tweets.

Global climate change is sold as a belief (or not) rather than a subject for thorough review of the issues and the consequences of alternative steps. We've encouraged ethanol production for no real impact beyond the price of pork and earlier discouraged nuclear power which could make a huge difference in reducing carbon dioxide fluxes both at the source of power and with electric vehicles. Nuclear power presents other challenges, but they are not unmanageable. Climate change got sidetracked by e-mail blather. Evangelical zeal overcame good science on both sides of the issue.

Healthcare reform in 2010 was reduced to "you're for it" or "you're against it," with very little definition of what the term means. Throughout this debate, there was little connection of cost to benefit. Preexisting conditions should not be a problem, keeping dependants on a policy until their 26th birthday should not be a problem, insuring 30 million more people should be a piece of cake. All of this can be done while reducing costs? Now THAT is real magic.

MISS can have tragic consequences. Once more, the fraudulent connection of vaccines to autism has surfaced. For too many, the science was ignored and belief took over years ago. We want there to be a cause. We want there to be intent. We want there to be accountability. We want to file lawsuits. How often in life sciences is the focus today more on harm than benefit? Vaccines have benefited billions. Not using them puts all of us at risk. Even now, there still are believers that this is not true.

Recently, I visited St. Augustine, Fla., and was hoping the fountain of youth was still working. Instead, I found red wine. We so badly wanted the resveratrol in wine to do the job of the fountain. Hundreds of millions were spent on the notion. This was another huge MISS. 

Just last month, a former Alaska governor was linked by the New York Times to a tragic shooting in Arizona. Evidence is apparently trumped by speculation when it comes to climate, autism, old age and folks with their neurons misconnected.

I understand our desperate and tragic situations. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Most often, there is no identifiable cause. We so badly wanted genomics to help us in the 1990s. Now, we know there are large numbers of inferences about disease that we haven't sorted out in any definitive way. Let's face it, bad luck is very much alive and well and the elusive fountain of youth continues to appeal.

What we've had in 2010 (and always) are "wicked problems" that defy simple solutions. Such problems are defined by their ambiguities. They are nonlinear problems and they are time-variant. We have incomplete data and pragmatic solutions are partial and often result in other problems, at times worse than the original. Healthcare, energy and religion are three overlapping wicked challenges. All three link to both climate and the environment which link to population, quality of life and war. How can one be tolerant and evangelical simultaneously? How can one reduce global emissions and expand both population and kitchen appliances? How can we live longer and reduce healthcare costs?  We can't solve the unsolvable, but we have and can still make some real progress when we choose smaller manageable challenges. We will make good progress in 2011. But please reduce the yelling and get down to the evidence our many powerful instruments can obtain. Don't pretend it is so simple this year. Let's balance our press releases.

I recommend a recent commentary in Nature (Vol. 468, pp. 1029-1031, 2010) by Andy Stirling entitled "Keep it Complex." He advises scientists to avoid the temptation to simplify their advice to government and the public when the facts don't support that. He says, "A move towards plural, conditional advice would help avoid erroneous 'one-track,' 'race-to-the-future' visions of progress. Such advice corrects the fallacy that skepticism over a specific technology implies a general 'anti-science' sentiment. It defends against simplistic or cynical support for some particular favored direction of change that is backed on spurious grounds that it is somehow synonymous with 'sound science,' or uniquely 'pro-innovation'." English remains a wicked language! ddn

Peter Kissinger is chairman emeritus of BASi, CEO of Prosolia in Indianapolis and a professor of chemistry at Purdue University.

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