The law of conservation of problems

In the field of science, there is a fundamental law called the law of conservation. Though there are many variations of this law, for instance, conservation of energy and conservation of mass, their central idea is the same: things (in this case energy and mass) cannot be created or destroyed within a system. For example, in a lightbulb, electric current excites electrons, which change orbital levels, thus emitting light. In this case, energy was not created nor destroyed, just converted from electrical energy to light energy.

But I believe that this law of conservation also applies to problems in reality. Problems cannot be created nor destroyed. They merely change forms or are transferred from one person to another.

One example of a major problem simply changing form and ownership is the process of college applications. The original problem  is the large amounts of human labor needed to process thousands and thousands of applicants. In response, a numbers-based system of standardized tests were put in place. Although branding a number to each student is convenient for admissions offices, it places a handicap on all students, all of whom have nonstandardized skills in one form another. These are things that can’t be measured, like maturity, worldliness, personality or basic living skills like cooking. The problem of inefficiency was solved with standardized testing, but it resulted in the devaluing of the human part of the student. Whether or not this tradeoff was worthwhile is open to debate, but the point is that it happened and it clearly exemplifies the law.

Additionally, this rule can give people an idea of the magnitude of a problem. Let’s say you drop your pencil. That could be labeled as a problem, since you are no longer in direct possession of your pencil. But then, you bend over and pick it up easily. Problem solved. In this case, there is a small transfer of problems when your muscles deform to pick up the pencil. But this is negligible, taking only a small amount of your energy. Therefore, the problem of a dropped pencil is minute. With the law of conservation of problems in mind, we can clearly differentiate huge problems from small problems. So when you think of the “problems” in your life, what really is a problem, and what really is not?

Specifics aside, the law can help us understand the reality and magnitude of problems and the essence of problem solving on all scales. It states that problems never really go away from the world. Thus, in reality, “problem solving” is not the act of completely eliminating problems. Instead, effective “problem solving” is actually “problem neutralization;” something along the lines of mitigating the problem via dilution among the people or changing the problem to a more recognizable form. With that in mind, people can use this rule to evaluate and weigh the consequences of their choices. When you “solve” a problem, you should keep in mind to whom or to where you are passing the problem on to.

Posted on December 19, 2017 .