The Solution Fallacy

As regular readers of SJ know, I bring up H.L. Mencken a lot around here. His “complex problems” quote is one of my favorites. The law is replete with complex problems, even if you don’t understand why. The less you know, the simpler the problem appears.

One of my roommates in college, a math major, came home from a lecture bursting to tell me what he learned:

A guy buys a barometer from Sears, he explained, and took it home to his house on the ocean. It didn’t work right, so he went back to Sears and complained. The guy at Sears listened intently, asked questions, and nodded his head. He then explained that his field team would fix the problem. When the purchaser returned home, he found his house demolished.  Outraged, he called the guy from Sears, who responded calmly, “well, you had a problem and now it’s fixed.”

Higher math. It’s not always satisfying.  Which gives rise to a common retort when flaws in the system, usually combined with typically simplistic answers, are subject to discussion.

So, what’s the solution then?

It’s a lame attempt at gotcha, which, in the mind of the dumbass who throws it out, seems utterly brilliant. Because every complex problem has a solution that’s “clear, simple and wrong.”

My definition of a solution is a resolution to a problem that does not create or perpetuate another problem.

Sometimes, there is a solution, although appreciating it requires a depth of knowledge and understanding far beyond the ken of the person trying to win the argument by this idiotic riposte.  It doesn’t “touch a nerve,” as they try to characterize their brilliance, but it does get tiresome.

In order to understand the solution, one must first understand the problem to be addressed within the context of all the other bits and pieces involved. That’s a lot to ask. Most either lack the background to understand, or just aren’t smart enough to get it. Sorry, kids, but you aren’t nearly as brilliant as mommy told you.

But then, not every problem has a solution. Many just have choices, each of which creates its own set of problems.  This can’t be, you say?  Every problem must have a solution, or, or, or I’ll just cry.

Nope. Neither life nor law have a good answer to everything. I appreciate that it makes you sad that there is no fix when you want one so very badly, but sometimes the answer is that there is no answer.

But what of the choices?  Surely, that’s the solution, right?

Well, sort of yes and sort of no.  You see, the non-solution answer is that one has to weigh the problems each “solution” creates or perpetuates, and decide which is the least bad outcome because there is no good outcome possible.  The problem with these fixes is that the least harmful answer for one person may not be the least harmful answer for someone else.

Ultimately, there is not only no solution, but not even agreement on the least harmful option.  This offends children and fools, because they view the world through a simple lens where every problem must have a solution. Sadly, no, every problem does not, or at least not a solution that doesn’t require massive change that would be untenable, and likely still not a solution as I’ve defined.

To not have one’s head explode is to expect tolerance for ambiguity.  You have to accept the proposition that there are dilemmas out there that defy solution. People don’t like ambiguity. They want clarity. They want answers.

You can’t always get what you want.

That doesn’t mean that expressing the problems inherent in such dilemmas isn’t worthwhile. It’s important to understand why things aren’t good, so that we can determine whether they can be made better, if only by diminishing the problem to the extent possible or by presenting the choice of bad alternatives and picking which problems we prefer, since we’re going to endure problems no matter what.

But solutions?  They’re not always in the cards. That’s life. If you refuse to appreciate that this is simply one of the unfortunate vicissitudes of life, then I can’t help you.  And merely because anyone can piece together the words, “so what’s your solution then?” doesn’t make the question a good one. It makes the inquirer either a fool or a child.

Don’t blame me. I didn’t make you ask it.

24 thoughts on “The Solution Fallacy

  1. Rob McMillin

    Elsewhere known as “engineering tradeoffs”. The simplest version of this is that of cost/schedule/quality: pick two. That is, you can have something quick and cheap, but it won’t be very good. Or, you can have something that will take a long time to build and be truly excellent, but you can’t have it quickly (“Rome wasn’t built in a day”). And so on.

    It seems to me the various advocates of interpreting Title IX as covering rape and all its homophone trespasses (“sexual assault”) fall into this category of creating a simple solution, i.e. the expedient of “always believe the survivor”. Such advocates either deny the possibility of real problems with this approach, i.e. false allegations, or engage in circular logic to avoid confronting them.

    1. SHG Post author

      Most people describe the triple constraint as “fast, good or cheap, pick two.” But that you thought it incumbent on you to explain this simple concept makes me very unhappy with you. It’s an extremely simple idea, and it’s really not necessary for a commenter to explain extremely simple ideas because they assume others are so fucking stupid they need the commenter’s brilliance to make sense of his simple ideas.

      1. Rob McMillin

        I reckon, then, that I’m spending too much time among people for whom this simple idea is utterly foreign. It must suck to be so grumpy on a holiday!

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m not grumpy. Stop calling me grumpy.

          I really hate the triple constraint, as it’s been usurped by sleazy salesmen as an excuse for unconscionable prices plus late completion and shoddy workmanship. You just had the misfortune of raising one of my dreaded tropes.

  2. mb

    O dies, leaving Blackacre, through his properly executed will, “to my brother, A, his heirs and assigns, until the rule against perpetuities in effect in this jurisdiction is repealed retroactively so as to affect this instrument, and then to such of the then living descendants of my brother, B, as have attained an age of not less than twenty five years.”

    I’ve got all kinds of problems that can’t be solved.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Sometimes I fail at technology, which is really scary considering I create technology for others. What I was trying to say is this:


        1. SHG Post author

          Seriously, I thought your original null comment was profound. Now, I am sad for having unduly projected my understanding on your tech fail.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            Profundity is not my strong suit, until I compare myself to those who self-proclaim their own brilliance — then I find myself profound, indeed. But this wasn’t a post about Dunning-Kruger, so I’ll leave it at that. Happy Labor day!

  3. j a higginbotham

    When is it ok to call paraphrases quotes? The Mencken quote is not documented anywhere.
    The closest version is:
    Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.
    “The Divine Afflatus” in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917); later published in Prejudices: Second Series (1920) and A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)
    The portion after the second semicolon is widely paraphrased or misquoted. Two examples are “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” and “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

  4. Tice with a J

    In my gloomier moods, I sometimes think that life is the problem, and death is the solution. Isn’t it nice to have a solution that’s simple, elegant, universally applicable, and totally inevitable?

    Then I snap out of it and get back to work.

  5. John Barleycorn

    Speaking of H.L. Mencken…If you didn’t spend so much time reaing that newspaper you read everyday, it’s possibly that you just might get around to working in a few more fitting quotes from In Defense of Women and other works by Mencken when your cynicism needs sharpning and/or you are just feeling the desire to lob some irony grenades around for sport.

    1. SHG Post author

      “Women in general seem to me to be appreciably more intelligent than men… a great many of them suffer in silence from the imbecilities of their husbands.”

      Sure. I plan to work that in any day now.

      1. John Barleycorn

        I wouldn’t let google infringe on an interesting and odly relevant read, even if it may come across as a bit dated.

  6. Marc R

    Great post. I see sometimes the law doesn’t offer a solution better than doing nothing at the moment and the sometimes the law can’t tell us the least harmful solution. But do you think an attorney can ever be in a situation (deciding on taking on a client through the type of defense if any through appeals) where it’s impossible for them to always do the right thing? I don’t mean in a hindsight sense where luck is often involved, but at the moment a choice needs to be made whether an attorney can always have the option to do the “right” thing (even if it’s literally taking no action if explained why) or whether some situations are destined that the subject acts wrongly.

  7. Bartleby the Scrivener

    Actually, you helped me quite a bit with my issues with ambiguity by adding certainty to the discussion.

    “You can’t always get what you want” is an item of certainty that helps me cope with my desire for clarity.

Comments are closed.