If You Can’t Explain Something Simply, Maybe It’s Not Simple

Simplicity is often the handmaid of clarity. I spend much of my time encouraging students toward greater clarity in writing. And that usually means shortening sentences, eliminating paragraphs, and sometimes slashing entire sections. In communication, less is usually more.

But sometimes I think we forget that in this relationship simplicity is the servant, not the master. When we make simplicity a goal in itself, it becomes the enemy of clarity.

Einstein’s Dictum

We’ve all experienced it: the belabored “explanation” that confuses more than it clarifies. I remember my high school chemistry teacher explaining a concept. It was something I’d actually learned about in a math class the year before, and thought I had a pretty good handle on it. But by the time he was done, I was thoroughly confused. That’s right, his explanation was so bad it actually caused me to un-learn something.

And you see this all the time in academic writing. People confuse intellectual with incoherent, and they write accordingly.

As an antidote to this pervasive problem, I often hear people quote Albert Einstein,

“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

True understanding should correspond to simple explanations. I’ve even heard people say that if you really understand a concept, you should be able to explain it in terms a small child could understand.

Simplicity ≠ Clarity

Right.

You go ahead and provide a simple explanation of what caused World War I, how the human brain functions, what it means to say that God is three persons in one nature, and why cats exist. I’ll just sit back and watch, and probably chuckle a little.

Reality is rarely simple.

The problem with the quote–or, more likely, with the way people use the quote–is confusing simplicity with clarity. Understanding something deeply should allow you to speak of it with some level of clarity. (To be more precise, though, clarity requires understanding your audience as well as your concept. If you understand quantum mechanics thoroughly but forget that you’re talking to someone who hasn’t had a physics class since high school, and didn’t understand it then, you’re going to have some clarity problems.) But that doesn’t mean you’ll be explain to explain it simply.

I’ve spent considerale time studying the question of human “free will.” And, given enough time, I think I could explain with some clarity what the issues are and why it matters. But it would take considerable time because it is an amazingly complex issue. I could introduce someone to the topic fairly simply, but really explaining things will take considerably more. And that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the issue. I can’t explain it simply because it isn’t simple.

Simplicity as the Enemy of Clarity

Of course, I could try to make it sound simple. That’s not difficult to do. I just need to eliminate the complicating factors, downplay the various perspectives, and emphasize the concepts easiest to understand. You can achieve simplicity with even the most difficult concepts, but you do it at the expense of clarity. Think, for example, of drawing a human person. Doing that well is quite difficult–all the curves, shadows, lines, and details. I wouldn’t even know how to start. But we can make it simpler, right? Just slap a circle on top of some straight lights, add a couple dots for eyes, some squiggly hair, and a smile, and you’re all set. Of course, you’ve lost the beauty and complexity of the original, but hey, it’s simple.

Simplicity has its uses, of course. Even a simple stick figure can be a helpful way of quickly depicting a human person. But we can’t make simplicity the driving goal and miss the deeper complexity of most meaningful realities.

The Overly Simple Sermon

When simplicity becomes king, the pulpit is often its kingdom.

Preachers have an impossible task. They often have to speak about some of the most amazingly complex realities in the universe (the nature of God, the problem of evil, the stupidity of humanity, etc.), issues that people study for a lifetime without fully understanding. And they usually have to speak about these issues to a diverse audience whose own understanding may range from novice to expert.

Good luck with that.

But I think too many preachers have taken Einstein’s dictum to heart. They’ve heard too often that good communication must be simple. So they force everything into that mold, talking about complex issues like poverty, suffering, ethics, and even the gospel, as though these were relatively simple and easy to understand. They’re not, and pretending otherwise sets us up for one of two problems (probably both):

  • Creating Simpletons: Some people will hear our simple explanations and take them at face value, believing that these issues really are as simple as we’ve presented them.
  • Creating Despisers: Others will hear our simple explanations, but will be fully aware that they are far more complex than we’ve portrayed them. Done often enough, they’ll develop a low view of us as preachers, or, even worse, a low view of Christianity, thinking that the problem lies in the superficiality of Scripture itself. (People involved in college ministries often tell me that this is something their students wrestle with.)

I fully appreciate the challenge of speaking on difficult issues in just thirty (or so) minutes. But the solution isn’t to make those issues sound easier than they are. When we do that, we’ve sacrificed clarity at the altar of simplicity and lost understanding in the process. We need to remember that clarity is the goal, not simplicity. The latter is frequently a valuable tool, but it is only that. Forcing complex issues to appear simple is closer to indoctrination than communication.

Comments

comments

9 Responses to “If You Can’t Explain Something Simply, Maybe It’s Not Simple”

  1. Jonathan June 25, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    Thank you for taking some time and addressing this. As a young pastor, it seems to me that we have created a monster that is driving people from rather than to deep faith in Christ, and it seems to me that at some point we stop feeding the beast of simplicity. We need to ask and expect that people, many of whom are college educated, use their brains a little and wrestle with some complexity. Life rarely boils down to nice simple solutions. It’s complicated and tough and requires that we think. The same is true when it comes to living for Christ. When we forget that and try to simplify to much, we create different problems that mat be worse than the original, such as people who are perpetually baby Christians.

  2. Steve June 25, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    Cats exist because evil. BOOM! So simple, so true.

  3. Dwight Gingrich June 25, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    I read this post this afternoon, just an hour or two before I delivered a talk to an adult Vacation Bible School class on Daniel 7, the Son of Man, and Jesus’ understanding of the coming of the SOM. I had been wondering whether I was shooting over people’s heads, but this post (which I read in part to my students) encouraged me to keep asking people to THINK about the Bible they claim to value and the Christ they follow. Thanks much!

    • Marc Cortez June 26, 2013 at 8:15 am #

      Hey, glad to hear that the post helped! Hope the the class went well.

      • Dwight Gingrich June 26, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

        It did, and thanks to YOU for your help!

  4. Mark Taylor June 26, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    Well said, Marc! You made it clear, and fairly simple too. As a fellow teacher, who labors to present complex truth with clarity, thank you!

  5. RS Keyes August 1, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    I think too often people confuse “simple” with “basic.” Luther’s Small Catechism is “basic truth.” And yet one can spend a lifetime studying these “basics.” The application of basic truth can be quite complex, but one has to begin with basics. Many still remember Vince Lombardi’s starting out with basics for the Green Bay Packers: “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Our basic truths are similar, “Gentlemen, this is Jesus.” It all has to start somewhere.

    To quote an axiom from my Sensei, “There are no advanced techniques. There are only advanced applications of basic ones.”

  6. John Malinoski October 21, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    The problem I see in most writing today is that the writer moves from the complex towards the simple, rather than stating the idea simply, and then moving through the more complex parts to the conclusion. I honestly don’t know why this has happened, it might have to do with computers and technology, not sure. Sometimes it appears that an article is essentially thrown together at the last minute-what aver happened to editing? Over 30 years ago I worked as Copy Editor for my college newspaper, we had deadlines, and limited space for articles, which all needed to be organized and structured to fit. Sometimes, I had to-re-write entire stories, since the writer took too long to get to the issue at hand.Too often what I see now is a headlines which says something like “3 simple ways to lose weight,” which is fine for a title, but then it takes the writer several paragraphs before they actually state those 3 items. It’s frustrating at times to deal with this!

  7. Jason J. Shaw November 12, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    The Holy Trinity is a pretty simple concept, really. Actually, I’ve broken down the understandings of Christianity as a whole into something that I think almost anyone could understand, maybe even children! I would definitely be curious as to your insights and/or challenges to what I have arrived at so far. I linked the URL directly to it.

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