The Power Of The Analogy When It Comes To Deconstructing Complex Ideas

We face many complex ideas in life. But how do we simplify them into ways that can be understood?


Joel Yong

2 years ago | 4 min read

(Unfortunately, the picture above does has a spelling error. It’s “similes”, not “similies”.)

In my day job as a chemical engineering lecturer, I do face multiple issues with students being unable to understand their learning material. It is my responsibility to get them to understand what they are learning so that we can proceed on to the next step.

Unfortunately, there is a complex mix of mathematics, physics and chemistry behind most chemical engineering problems. If the student cannot even visualize what they are learning, then how are they expected to perform the necessary calculations for each different concept that is covered in their learning materials?

They’d end up doing a ton of rote learning and memory work, which isn’t the best for them.

During the government-mandated COVID lockdowns of yesteryear, I began using the extra free time that I had to start reading and writing about various health issues from a quantitative engineering perspective.

And then it hit me. The medical science/healthcare arena is fraught with many levels of complexity, such that the common person cannot even understand why they are experiencing what they are experiencing. For example, why is it that one can experience a problem with “high cholesterol”? Is the commonly accepted narrative about cholesterol all to it that meets the eye?

The problem is that the current cholesterol narrative is the most convenient way for doctors to deal with the hordes of patients that they have to see each day. Some doctors can be so overworked and burnt out just to meet their patient quotas. Explaining the entire quantitative mechanism behind how cholesterol accumulates isn’t necessarily the most efficient use of their time when statin prescriptions provide faster turnover rates. After all, the running one-liner joke about most doctors stands as

“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”

But the question is, how do we take a complicated concept and deconstruct it down into simpler bite-sized pieces?

Enter the use of the analogy. While I was growing up as a Christian, I learned about parables and analogies from Jesus Christ, who is regarded as a great teacher. I just need to adapt it for the content that I’m teaching or writing about.

For the cholesterol conundrum, I developed the analogy of the bank account, which can be found here:

The first thing that we ought to understand about “high cholesterol” is that there is an accumulation of cholesterol, and that is precisely what makes the readings “high”. In the same way, we will have “high” bank account balances when we do accumulate sufficient quantities of money in those accounts, don’t we?

The next question becomes a question of how something can accumulate over time, and we’d then have to look at what goes in and what comes out. When we look at our bank account balances, we’d be accumulating wealth if and only if the net difference between what goes in and what goes out is positive.

Therefore, if our income (what goes in) were to consistently be larger than our expenses (what goes out), we’d have that positive accumulation in our bank accounts. Conversely, we’d be facing issues with deficits and debts if our expenses were greater than our income.

Can we not extend this analogy elsewhere?

Yes, we can extend this analogy further in the analysis of cholesterol in our body. We’d see that there would be an accumulation of cholesterol in our body if whatever cholesterol we were feeding ourselves with was greater in quantity than whatever cholesterol that we were excreting.

Therefore, the cholesterol approach has to deal with both: 1) the rate that cholesterol is entering our bodies, as well as 2) the rate that cholesterol is exiting our bodies.

Developing this analogy provided a two-pronged solution in both my daily teaching activities as well as my side hustle writing activities. In my daily teaching activities, I could use the bank account analogy to teach my students how to perform material balances for designing chemical reactors, while it also serves to educate health-conscious people via my writing.

Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), this mass balance may also provide useful insights for our bone health (or lack thereof, in osteoporosis) and our joint health (or lack thereof, in osteoarthritis).

Getting the right analogy may not necessarily be an easy thing.

The analogy has to fit snugly with the concept that I am describing, and it has to be relatable. A bank account is relatable because most people do have bank accounts and know how these bank accounts operate, but they don’t necessarily take the next step to see how it does tie in with our joint health, for instance.

They might be geniuses at accumulating wealth in their bank accounts, but yet bemoan the fact that they have to live with the painful issue of osteoarthritis.

As I did joke with my engineering students… Do you see how powerful this tool of quantitative reasoning is? It can help trained engineers to jump into the world of finance!

It’s all contingent on developing the right analogies. Things that people can relate to, such that people can communicate on similar wavelengths. Medical jargon can be terribly complex at times and the medical professionals don’t necessarily attempt to simplify things down for the lay person to understand.

That’s my writing niche right there. Attempting to simplify medical science and the biochemical mechanisms occurring in the human body to something relatable for the lay person to understand.

While it isn’t necessarily the easiest task to carry out, and while some articles of mine have bombed, others, such as the cholesterol accumulation piece, have found sufficient traction. For that, I am grateful enough at making my contribution to the simplification of all the knowledge there is out there.

And if I can write in this way to simplify complicated biochemical mechanisms, other writers can also make use of this technique to simplify other complicated concepts in their own niche areas to helpfully inform and educate their audience with relevant information too!


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Joel Yong







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