Occam’s Dirty Razor.

Long ago in a land far, far away (from mine, at least), there lived a man named William of Ockham. William was a pensive type who would often try to figure out the logic of everything (or so we’re told). He was so good at this that, hundreds of years after his death, another thinker named a well known philosophical tool after him: Ockham’s razor.

Ockham’s razor has, as these things do, slowly changed to Occam’s razor over the years. The point of the idea is simple: when any two explanations for something come into competition with each other, we should favour the one with the least assumptions. The simpler explanation should stay behind after the razor has been wielded.

This is something we do every day, actually. We immediately see that it is better to explain the turning of a water wheel by the obvious explanation rather than the activity of fairies. In a world where there may be an infinity of possible explanations, Occam’s razor frees us to only ponder those that matter.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the most widely misused tools in philosophy. Electricity is much more complex than simply saying lights work by magic. The razor only truly functions when all the available explanations are equally (im)plausible. The domain of Occam’s great blade is in the unknown.

Which is, once again, something that we are confronted with daily. Humans have evolved as categorisers and storytellers. When Terry Pratchett calls us Homo Narrativus, or the storytelling ape, he implies that this is what actually sets us apart from other species we know. People see things happening and immediately make up stories to connect them. It is why we have developed science. It is why we are able to plan for the future and learn from our past. I agree with Mr Pratchett (I usually do), our penchant for stories has been as important to our development as our opposable thumbs. 

So here we are, 21st century man, master of the universe. What does this have to do with me? Everything. Every day, when you click on a link or open a blog (or consume anything on the internet) you are being given a depiction of reality that says: This is how things really are.

This is where Occam comes in. The more plausible and simple these stories seem, the greater the chance that we’ll take them at face value. Writers are incentivised to work within the dominant frameworks we use to categorise the world. We all know that celebrities do silly things, so why question the newest gossip column? Big corporations are always evil, right? Environmentalists are always noble. Herbal means healthy and the news is always true.

Except it isn’t like that. Reality is almost never as simple as the heuristics we use to filter it, but our bias tends to favour the explanations that fall solidly within the narratives we are comfortable with. The problem is: The people generating the content know this.

They know that if they keep us comfortable, we will keep clicking. No worldview-threatening stories are allowed to shake the reader base, because pageviews equal money. This is why all you ever see on anti-GMO blogs are things that demonise GMO. The pattern holds true for everything from Jezebel to Christianity Today. To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The only thing that changes is the different types of hammers.

When they heard about the filter bubble, people were aghast at the implications without realising that they’d been doing the same thing voluntarily for years. We crawl into little internet ghettos where likeminded people pat each other on the back for being likeminded. I get it. It’s comfortable. I do it too.

But the world is too complex for this kind of reduction. We owe it to ourselves to escape our ghetto and see how other people live and think. Your mind is only as broad as the horizon that you paint for it. Smallmindedness is self-perpetuating and comforting. Others will feed this drive towards insignificance. Nobody will help you fight it if you don’t do it yourself first.

If Occam’s razor is dirty, the only thing it’ll give you is tetanus. 

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5 thoughts on “Occam’s Dirty Razor.

    • I am? Was a bit worried writing this that I will be called on my ignorance by other who have a better understanding. What did I misrepresent? I think Occam’s razor is awesome, btw.

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      • I think Occam’s razor tries to help you decide which theory to take forward when faced with a selection of theories and insufficient evidence for any of them. The phenomenon that you discussed seemed to me to be about only considering information to confirm a theory that you already believe. So there is no consideration of competing theories, even though competing theories exist. So the issues seem to me to be distinct. And yes – I also think the razor is awesome!

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      • That is why I said “The razor only truly functions when all the available explanations are equally (im)plausible. The domain of Occam’s great blade is in the unknown.”

        This is about the misuse of the theory, which I’ve encapsulated in the metaphor of dirty blades. The point is that the explanations that fall within our basic narratives about the world often seem to require fewer assumptions, thereby giving good cause to assume the validity of the truth statements.

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  1. The previous point I made related to paragraph 9-11. I guess I feel that the issues relating to the filter bubble and a misuse of Occam’s razor are distinct. I also don’t feel that it is a fair metaphor, since I don’t believe that the number of assumptions to be made, either implicitly or explicitly, is the most important factor for most people when they evaluate a truth claim, though it may be considered corroborative. I think that the desire to keep their world view in tact is often a much more important consideration, for instance. This would mean that it is not the misuse of Occam’s razor which leads to the error. As I said before, I think the point that you raise is a valid one, though. Old assumptions may be overlooked (due to familiarity?) and that may lead to accepting the truth claims that you are already comfortable with. I just don’t think it decision driver in the majority of cases, which is how I interpreted your piece. So yes, I understand your point (I think) and I think it is a really good one.

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