Maslow’s Hammer

Here is the head of a standard, worn hammer. It's broken away from it's handle.

The silver bullet. The single solution to an intractable problem.

Like the problem of the werewolf. You know, the man who under a full moon goes full monster? When knives and regular bullets have no effect? Enter the mythical silver bullet. The one weapon that can bring the reign of terror to an end.

People like silver bullets. They bring the comfort of certainty. If only we knew the cause, we could fix it. Because there is one, and only one, cause. And once that is known, we can focus on what needs to be done. It’s a straight line from cause to effect. Kill the cause, kill the effect.

Except that’s not how the world works. The monster lives in an ecosystem that supports her. There is a system that creates the monster and that sustains the monster. There are incentives that allow, nay, that encourage the monster.

That’s why after the hero kills the werewolf in the movie, there is always a sequel. [This is only half facetious. As far as systems go, there are reasons why we retell stories, too. But, back to the monster.]

The bullet takes care of the current manifestation of the problem, but does nothing to adjust the underlying structure that spawned it. To be truthful, the removal of the beast is also part of the system. The killed wolf informs back, a feedback loop, and has an impact in the system. The act of killing the werewolf is advanced by other incentives that are connected to the werewolf itself. When those incentives align, the wolf is toast.

This might look like a fatalistic argument, but it is not. It is an argument that begs for a review of the interconnectivity and complexity of the environs. It begs, too, to see solutions as hypotheses that can be tested and modified based on observed results.

There will be unintended consequences. Period. We need to do the best we can to avoid over-investing  in a wrong approach. And a single approach is inherently wrong. Because our world is a complex system. And there is no silver bullet.


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