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I often hear variations of the following premise in people's discussions:

  • Your argument is too simplistic

Which means that this simplicity is undesirable for some reason not present in the argument. And this seems to indicate "complex" things are automatically better when this could not be the case. Is this a fallacy or is there a name to it?

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    Suggesting that an argument is too simplistic does not necessarily indicate that simplicity is undesirable or complexity is better, most commonly it indicates that the argument does not take into account factors that affect the point but are not addressed. Arguments should be as simple as needed, but no simpler. It would help to give a specific example to see what fallacy is involved, if any.
    – Conifold
    Jul 4 at 0:46
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    It's called Ockams's shaving gel. Jul 4 at 6:25
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    The question is good, but the reason you say you're asking for it seems to be a misunderstanding. "Simplistic" is not a synonym for "simple", it means "falsely or overly simple". "Your argument is too simplistic" is an assertion that the other person has got it wrong because they simplified the situation too much, ignoring details a correct argument would need to cover. It's not "I don't believe you because your argument is too simple", it's "I don't believe you because I believe there is more to this situation than your argument covers".
    – Ben
    Jul 4 at 22:54
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    (I suppose "too simplistic" is a bit redundant because "simplistic" already contains the notion of "too", since it's about excessive simplicity for the situation. *shrug* That's language, I guess.)
    – Ben
    Jul 4 at 22:58
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    There’s also the “had it been possible to prove the Riemann hypothesis with a proof this short, it would have been done long ago” kind of argument, which isn’t fallacious. Jul 5 at 22:39
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If somebody said "your argument is simple, therefore it is wrong", that would definitely be a fallacy. But that is not what "your argument is too simplistic" is supposed to mean. Consider the following two exchanges.

  • Wally says "the economy is in recession, so the government are bad at economics". Clive says "that's too simple so it can't be right". Clive is committing a fallacy.
  • Wally says "the economy is in recession, so the government are bad at economics". Clive says "that's an oversimplification; recessions can have many causes including factors outside of the government's control". Clive is not committing a fallacy.

If somebody says "your argument is too simplistic", they mean it is ignoring relevant facts, details or possibilities. If they intend to refute your argument, they should then go on to do that. The statement "your argument is too simplistic" is not meant to be a refutation, it is only meant to say that the argument can be refuted, but the refutation is more complicated than the argument itself. This is not a fallacy, because the argument's incorrectness is not deduced from its simplicity.

Compare with the fallacy of argument ad hominem, which is only a fallacy when one attempts to deduce the truth of a proposition from a premise about the person who made that proposition:

  • Wally says "the economy is in recession, so the government are bad at economics". Clive says "you were wrong last time, so you're wrong this time as well". Clive is committing a fallacy.
  • Wally says "the economy is in recession, so the government are bad at economics". Clive says "you were wrong last time, as usual you're ignoring factors outside of the government's control". Clive is not committing a fallacy, because his refutation of Wally's argument is not deduced from the statement about Wally himself.
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  • Many phenomena can be described using a model which combines a simple formula that describes most of the effect, and a much more complicated portion whose contribution will in most cases be much smaller. If one is trying to describe the trajectory of an orbiting spacecraft, a basic model would just consider the Earth's gravity. A better model would include the influence from the Moon and Sun. A better model still would factor in relativistic effects. If someone tries to "prove" that an orbit is table using just the basic model, that would suggest that the orbit will probably...
    – supercat
    Jul 4 at 18:47
  • ...behave in somewhat-stable fashion for some period of time, but showing that the orbit is unstable would require much more complicated maths. The basic model is fine for showing that an orbit's parameters are so far away from stability that the influence of the Moon, Sun, and relativity couldn't change that, or for showing that an object will orbit the Earth for a little while, but if someone uses the basic model to "prove" that an orbit will be stable for 1000 years, the fact that the model is simplified to ignore important factors would be sufficient to invalidate that proof.
    – supercat
    Jul 4 at 18:51
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    @supercat As you say, it is the fact that the model ignores important factors which invalidates it - not the mere fact that it is simple.
    – kaya3
    Jul 4 at 21:36
  • @supercat: That may be fine most of the time, but sometimes you encounter seemingly-simple cases where the simple model doesn't actually work. See for example Newton's universal law of gravitation and the orbit of Mercury (which Newton fails to adequately predict; you need Einstein for that).
    – Kevin
    Jul 5 at 17:08
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This is the complexity bias. See also the conjunction fallacy.

It's not necessarily always a fallacy to prefer complicated explanations; someone who studies a subject deeply is likely to produce a more complex explanation when necessary.

But as a consequence of that, someone who would like to be seen as an expert, whether or not they are one, is also likely to produce a more complex explanation. They are aware that the appearance of complexity creates the appearance of authority. For instance, expert wine tasters produce refined and complex descriptions of wine, but can be fooled into describing a white wine like they would a red wine if the white wine has been dyed red.

Of course, pseudo-science fields such as astrology or numerology also produce highly complex explanations.

So we should not trust explanations just because they are complex. When should we trust explanations?

  • If one is competent enough to understand an explanation himself fully, then one can and should judge it on its own merits, regardless of who said it or how complex or simple it may be.
  • In many fields, a typical person is not competent enough to understand the explanation fully. For example, I am not competent to understand Kumar Eswaran's proof of the Riemann hypothesis; it is too complex for a non-expert. In these cases we have to look at the track record of the specific community involved. Do they make testable predictions according to rigorous methods? How often are they proven wrong?
    Do they have a robust methodology for detecting and correcting errors when they happen? The mathematics and physics communities, for example, have good track records in this regard, so it is rational to trust the peer-reviewed consensus of mathematicians about a mathematical proposition, or the peer-reviewed consensus of physicists about a proposition in physics. (Regarding Eswaran's proof, mathematicians do not trust it).

One final comment: to truly understand something often grants one the ability to explain it in a simple way - to see the forest for the trees, the pattern behind the details.

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  • Nice examples..
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 4 at 13:05
  • Nice answer, +1. In medicine, one of the first things drilled into us is Occam's razor, as exemplified by a saying, "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." I keep my answers (to patients) as simple as truthfully possible. Jul 4 at 14:34
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    Your philosophical explanation is good but the math example is not. There is a fairly clear consensus that this is not a proof. The answer at skeptics expains it fairly well. There is a higher than usual number of non mathematicians who believe or want to believe it. There are no mathematician who looked into it who believe it. Peer review works and the verdict here is clear: no proof.
    – quarague
    Jul 4 at 18:45
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    Just FYI, the math example is totally off -- the RH proof is totally bogus and was easily debunked by the first mathematician who took a look at it (see the standard RH proof graveyard toward the bottom).
    – Charles
    Jul 4 at 19:57
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    @Charles alright, I added a comment to that effect. It remains a good example of deciding who to trust, when one is not competent to understand the proof oneself. i.e. trust the peer review of mathematicians in the same field, don't trust the opinions of physicists and relatives of the author.
    – causative
    Jul 4 at 20:39
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This tendency (to value complexity, appearance of complexity) also impacts problem solving. It's pretty well understood by test makers that you can divert (many) weaker subjects from what they would figure out as a right answer with "red herrings". Whereas if they only had the key parts, they would (tend to) figure out the answer.

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Your argument is too simplistic

I depends who utters this sentence.

If it is used by someone who thinks that the argument offered doesn't include enough details to arrive at a conclusion, or if the conclusion iitself can't be made from the arguments, then it is justified. If he has better (more complex) arguments. So it is no fallacy.

If someone says that the elementary particles offer a too simple explanation of the phenomena observed in particle accelerators she will meet a lot of resistance. The standard model of partìcles contains high level mathematical machinary, which is not easily given up on. There are no reasons to give this up if the observations in the experiments give no reason for this. Ockham's razor is applied. Recent experiments though have shed doubt and our friend can argue again that the model is too simplistic ( https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01033-8). But the defenders of the status quo will still try to keep the power and consider her arguments to be wrong. They will try to stick to the old by redefining parameters, redoing theoretical calculations, etc. But in the end the arguments of old model keepers can turn out to be too simplistic indeed.

Something can go the other way too. Enormous mathematical calculations with thousands of terms were made to show that a charged black hole has an angular momentum of 12 ( the 12J calculation). This was done in order to solve the information paradox in black hole physics. But it turns out that there may be no paradox at all! Complex mathematics isn't the garantied road to reality...

This holds of course for argueing in any field. Be it physics, mathematics, philisophy, astrology, body health, economics, or whatever. Of course I do not assume that complexity is used to show one's superiority or authority. Which can be the case and often is the case.

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