Confusing familiar with simple

Is Spanish simpler than Chinese? Most English speakers would think so, though that may not be true. Spanish is more familiar than Chinese if you’re an English speaker, but that does not mean the language is objectively simpler. In fact, linguists have a theory that all human languages are about equally complex, though they allocate their complexity in different areas. For example, Chinese has a complex tonal system, but I’ve been told its grammar is relatively simple.

We often confuse familiar with simple. Rich Hickey makes this observation in the context of programming languages, though the principle applies much more generally.

I think programmers have become inured to incidental complexity, in particular by confusing familiar or concise with simple. And when they encounter complexity, they consider it a challenge to overcome, rather than an obstacle to remove. Overcoming complexity isn’t work, it’s waste.

In some sense the familiar is simple. Familiar things have less perceived complexity, and sometimes perceived complexity is all that counts. But perceived complexity is personal. We can forget that familiarity clouds our judgment about complexity. We may recommend something familiar but complex to someone else who finds it unfamiliar and complex. Teachers have to keep in mind what students find complex. Programmers have to keep in mind what users find complex. Doctors have to keep in mind what patients find complex.

However, familiarity and perceived complexity can be deceiving even though no one else is involved. You may find something familiar and not realize how much effort you’re devoting to fighting its complexity. It’s easy to assume that things must be as complex as they are. I didn’t realize how complex clarinet was until I learned to play saxophone. I didn’t realize how complex C++ was until I had some experience with other programming languages. I didn’t realize how complex some desktop software was until I tried online alternatives.

The complexity of the familiar may not be apparent until you look closer. Nothing could be more familiar than the experience that the sun and planets go around the earth. That is a simple explanation until you look at orbits more carefully. Then you start introducing epicycles on top of epicycles to preserve the earth-centric model.  You may find that what you thought was simple was only familiar, and that what you dismissed as more complex was only less familiar.

3 thoughts on “Confusing familiar with simple

  1. Nice concept, I like it!
    I have a similar thought where people confuse tedious with difficult.

  2. I’ve seen this in teaching Calc II. When trying to establish convergence or divergence of a series, students almost universally prefer the integral test to straightforward alternatives, such as direct comparison with a geometric series.

    The latter is remarkably simple, but at this point in the students life, the machinery of integration is familiar, and feels simple, despite it’s great complexity.

  3. Alvaro Castro Q.

    John Von Neumann once said to Felix Smith, “Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” This was a response to Smith’s fear about the method of characteristics.

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