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“More Complex Than Previously Thought”

The pursuit of science is an interesting beast. It’s awesome to distill our world down to a basic set of principles…laws, rules, and theorems that explain, or at the very least describe, how things work. On the other hand, the more you dig into things, the more interesting and surprising they can be. Previous notions end up being overturned, or perhaps even more frequently, the accepted phenomenon turns out to be “more complex than previously thought.”

This phrase jumped out at me recently as I was reading a paper related to one of my study organisms. And once I spotted the phrase, I realized how common it is, even in my own writing. A quick Google Scholar search found the words “more complex than previously” over 27,000 times. By contrast, “less complex than previously” had a paltry 204 appearances.

An old school Brontosaurus, as envisioned in the late 1800s. After Marsh 1896.
An old school Brontosaurus, as envisioned in the late 1800s. When the genus was recently re-separated from Apatosaurus, it made a good example of a simple issue becoming more complex. After Marsh 1896.

The idea of unexpected complexity is an attractive one–after all, real world observations very rarely fit into neat boxes. Numerous perturbations mess up the tidy patterns we hope to see. And truthfully, it’s fun to feel like you’ve overturned conventional wisdom, or at the very least chastened those less careful, less brilliant scientists who didn’t see the “big picture.” Of course, the latter sentiment isn’t entirely fair–every idea has to start somewhere, and inevitably most of our own ideas are oversimplifications to some degree.

So, is science a nihilistic march to ignorance? Are we forever doomed to futilely chase a more and more complex view of reality? A recent discussion with colleagues on social media highlighted several examples that snapped me out of this somewhat cynical idea.

For instance, taxonomy (the classification of organisms) often tends towards simplification. Two previously recognized species might be shown to be variation within a single species. In other cases, “unexpected complexity” forms a solid argument for separating one species into two (and thus simplifying the range of anatomical variation within a single species). It works both ways! Most scientists can probably come up with parallel examples in their own realm of research. (And yes, you can always even spin simplifications as adding complexity to the system.)

As additional encouragement, “more complex than previously thought” usually doesn’t mean a complete overturn of a paradigm–the overall pattern still holds; there’s just with a little extra variation on the trend line. Additional research shows the source of this variation, and the basic rule or observation remains.

Lots of things are more complex than previously thought. Perhaps the phrase is a little worn out, and overall it’s just the nature of science! Our world is simultaneous orderly, messy, cool, and complex–and that’s what makes it fun to be a scientist.

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