Sing for our time too, or what Homer can teach us about complexity

NAECLast week’s Workshop on Complexity and Policy organised by the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) team along with the European Commission and the Institute for new Economic Thinking (INET) included a discussion about how you build a narrative around complexity. As one participant pointed out, “complexity economics” isn’t the most thrilling of titles, except (maybe) to complexity economists. But “narrative” was one of the keywords of the discussions, along with “navigating” complexity. If you add to this Lex Hoogduin’s plea for modesty in his article on Insights and during the debate, I think we could learn something from an expert on narrative, navigation, and modesty: Homer.

The Iliad and Odyssey start with similar requests to the Muse to tell the tale of the hero, but with one striking exception. In the Iliad, she is asked to tell of the anger of Achilles, and the epic that follows is a more or less chronological account of ten days at the end of the Trojan War. In The Odyssey on the other hand, the poet suggests that the goddess start the tale wherever she thinks is best. One reason could be that, in our terms, The Iliad is a linear account, where one event causes and leads to the next, while The Odyssey is complex, jumping all over the place in space and time, with events far apart influencing each other, often in unintended ways.

Where you start a complex narrative determines what you describe and to some extent how you describe it. If, for example, you start your explanation of the financial crisis with the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, you will tell the story one way. If you start a few years earlier with market deregulation, the story will be different. Go back to the end of unlimited liability of stakeholders and yet another plot and set of characters become possible.  Wherever you started, you would tell the true story, but not the only story. So in telling a complex story, you have to first decide what you want the audience to remember, and then decide what combination of the limitless elements available would best allow them to understand the issues and agree with a course of action.

Another lesson we can learn from Homer is that in a non-complex telling, there can be a “God’s-eye view” of the narrative, as when Achilles contemplates the shield made for him by the god Hephaestus. In The Odyssey, the narrator doesn’t have this knowledge, and is in fact part of the story himself, influencing its outcome. Eric Beinhocker of INET, who co-organised the NAEC Complexity workshop, relates this to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, arguing that it may be impossible for an agent embodied within the system to access information an agent outside the system with a God’s-eye view would have.

Once you have decided what you want to say and selected what you are going to use to say it, there remains the question of how to say it. Policy experts, like experts in other fields, often defend their poor communication by explaining that the subject is complicated and shouldn’t be dumbed down. Here’s an extract from Einstein’s critique of Newtonian cosmology in Relativity: The Special and General Theory: “If we ponder over the question as to how the universe, considered as a whole, is to be regarded, the first answer that suggests itself to us is surely this: As regards space (and time) the universe is infinite. There are stars everywhere, so that the density of matter, although very variable in detail, is nevertheless on the average everywhere the same. In other words: However far we might travel through space, we should find everywhere an attenuated swarm of fixed stars of approximately the same kind and density.”

Practically any adult or young person who can read can understand Einstein’s point, however complicated the subject. Here by way of contrast is the OECD explaining a fundamental concept in economics: “…the relative cost differences that define comparative advantage, and are the source of trade, disappear once one reaches equilibrium with free trade. That is, the two countries in the trading equilibrium in Figure 1.2 are both operating at points on their PPFs where the slope is equal to the common world relative price. Thus comparative advantage cannot be observed, in a free trade equilibrium, from relative marginal costs.” Can you tell from this if we’re for or against free trade?

It’s striking that in so many domains, the greatest experts are the greatest advocates for simplicity. David Hilbert set the agenda for 20th century mathematics at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in a paper on 23 unsolved problems. Hilbert supported the view that: “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street”. Maths genius Alan Turing was even more provocative, claiming that “No mathematical method can be useful for any problem if it involves much calculation.”  (Turing wrote a paper on computability without using any equations, basing his explanation on puzzles sold in toyshops.)

We can learn a final lesson from Homer in the character of his heroes. Achilles is arrogant, immature, impulsive, self-centred (“the best of the Achaeans”, making you wonder what the rest of them were like). He’s strong and is good at killing people but ends up dead. Ulysses is clever and is good at persuading people. He is modest and he listens to advice. He worries about others. And he navigates his way back to Ithaca and Penelope. In a complex world, today or as described by Homer, you will achieve more through strategy and resourcefulness than by brute force. The poet doesn’t just ask the goddess to “start from where you will”, he asks her to “sing for our time too”.

Useful links

You can see the webcast of the Workshop at these links: 29/09 morning; 29/09 afternoon; 30/09 morning