Bonini’s Paradox: Why Simple Rules Triumph In A Complex World
Bonini’s Paradox states that the more complete a model of a complex system, the less understandable it becomes. This is a useful concept to remember because the world is a complex place, filled with complex institutions and complex people.
Aphorisms aim to cut through such complexity. They are meant to be simple. Take “honesty is the best policy” for example. It’s concise and easy to remember. But it’s also clearly lacking in nuance, and everyone can point to situations where one shouldn’t be honest. The reason it sticks around is because a more nuanced statement like “honesty is the best policy except when the cost of telling the truth is so large that it would be better off if the other side was in the dark” is absolutely useless.
Accuracy matters, but it comes with a cost. You want a map that’s able to tell you something where something is as accurately as possible. A map that uses an extremely high ratio is unable to tell you where a particular building is located on a street. Switch to a map with a 1:1 ratio and you’ll get the most detailed picture, but it would also be entirely unusable.
Bonini’s Paradox isn’t the first formulation of this idea. The British statistician George Box wrote earlier:
“Remember all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.”
This is how we end up with mental models, guidelines, and aphorisms that seem to contradict each other. Consider the following.
Simplicity: Occam’s Razor teaches us that the simplest explanation is the most likely one. John Hickam had an obvious counterargument: “a man can have as many diseases as he damn well pleases”. Between Occam’s Razor and Hickam’s Dictum, you better hope you have a competent and confident doctor.
Taking chances: “You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket” sounds good until you realise that you’ll probably lose money over a lifetime playing the lottery. The people buying these tickets are the same people who can’t afford it.
Investing: “Nobody ever lost money by taking a profit” is the type of thing a conservative investor would say. But it makes you wonder if he’ll really sleep well at night when he realises…