I was browsing the web a while back, and ran across some full-of-himself young Turk pulling out the “Occam’s Razor” defense of some contemporary platitude: something along the lines of, “It’s Occam’s Razor, stupid. Read up on it.”
As it turns out, I mostly agreed with his conclusion, but his flippant use of Occam’s Razor set my teeth on edge — I wanted to tell him, “Be careful, you fool, you’re going to cut yourself.”
What is this “Occam’s Razor” that keeps getting bandied about (usually with little real understanding) in this soup of sound-bites people call “discourse” these days?
It’s named after a place, Ockham, a small village in Surrey, England. It entered into historical fame through a fourteenth-century Franciscan monk named William, who was said to have been born in the village of Ockham, and was thus known as “William of Ockham.” He gained a place in history for a number of reasons, one of which was a method of evaluating theories that later became known as (William of) Ockham’s Razor, or in Latin, the lex parsimoniae or Law of Parsimony. At some point in history, the spelling changed from Ockham to Occam.
Despite its multi-lingual pedigree, it’s a pretty simple concept. It says that, all else being equal, the simplest (most parsimonious) theory is the most likely to be true.
There’s a sharp edge that people regularly cut themselves on: the phrase, “all else being equal.”
I’d like to illustrate this with the heliocentric theory of celestial motion.
Stand in a field all day, and watch the motions of the heavens. You’ll see clouds up there, and birds, and (these days) aircraft contrails — all pretty obviously terrestrial effects. The big thing you’ll notice, however — if you stay out there for a full day — is the sun. It rises in the East, passes more-or-less overhead, and then sets in the West. After dark, you’ll see the Moon and the stars do exactly the same thing.
The heavens are obviously moving. It’s equally obvious that you are not moving. The geocentric model of the universe is obvious, and simple. The heliocentric model is enormously complex, and raises all kinds of imponderable auxiliary hypotheses, like (for instance) general relativity.
It’s Occam’s Razor, stupid. Read up on it. The Earth is clearly the center of the universe.
So what’s wrong with the geocentric theory of the universe? As it turns out, that’s not very obvious at all.
There’s the Moon. You don’t have to spend very many nights out to realize that the Moon isn’t on the same schedule as everything else. Not only does it wax and wane, it moves. Sometimes it rises in the evening, sometimes in the morning. If the sun and the heavens are on a fixed backdrop that revolves around the Earth, the Moon is clearly on her own special track.
Then there are the ἀστὴρ πλανήτης (astēr planētēs), or wandering stars. Most of the stars move right along with the sun, like a giant light-studded backdrop that revolves around the Earth. But there are a few highly visible stars — Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn — that clearly follow their own path, just like the moon, sometimes appearing in the morning, sometimes in the evening. So you have a few more tracks to take into account. It piques the curiosity, so you start to pay a little closer attention.
That’s when you get into real trouble. The first thing you notice is that the planets speed up and slow down within their track, and sometimes, they even move backwards. Then you try to figure out exactly when the moon will rise, or set, or change quarters, and you find out that it’s all over the map: off by up to three days from any simple regular pattern. The more closely you watch, the more erratic everything becomes. Indeed, when you start to see some of the fixed constellations change shape over the course of thousands of years, assuming you have records that go back that far, the whole idea that the stars are holes punched in the black curtain of night, through which Divine Radiance pours through, becomes — unlikely.
The phrase “all else being equal” means “among all competing theories that explain the evidence equally well.” The problem that has erupted here is that competing theories don’t explain the evidence equally well as we add more evidence.
This is a very bad sign for the theory.
We could call it “Occam’s Five O’ Clock Shadow” — when you use Occam’s Razor to choose the simpler of two theories, and it gets the chin baby-bottom-smooth, but doesn’t get rid of the neck beard, it generally means that Occam’s Razor isn’t being used properly.
Another way to say this is that “all else being equal” means “if you aren’t ignorant.” The problem, of course, is that we’re all profoundly ignorant. A very few are slightly less ignorant than the rest of us, but even they are still just hairless apes scratching for ants in the dirt.
Occam’s Razor can only be used in the context of an agreed-upon body of evidence, among peers who understand that evidence. If there’s disagreement about the evidence, then Occam’s Razor can’t be used at all.
One reason there is no possible agreement between scientists and Fundamentalist Christians, is that Fundamentalists have accepted, as evidence, all the tales in their Book, including interpreting obvious metaphors, hyperbole, and fictional teaching tales as literal events that actually occurred. So in the cosmology of the Fundamentalists, scientists need to account for a worldwide flood, nine-hundred-year lifespans, the sun stopping for a day, virgin births, walking on water, and the dead rising from their graves.
But we don’t have to turn to groups with a poor grasp of the rules of evidence (like Fundamentalists) to see conflicts that prevent the use of Occam’s Razor.
Cold fusion is heating up. I’ve posted on this before, here and here, and evidence is continuing to accumulate that indicates there’s a real nuclear reaction taking place in a device not much more complicated than a pressure-cooker.
Fusion theorists tell us that this is impossible. Some of them put their careers on the line back in the 1980’s to “debunk” the Pons and Fleischmann work, and if history is any guide, they will go to their graves denying any evidence of LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions): as Max Planck (the famous physicist credited with “Planck’s Constant”) once quipped, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”
Until the evidence of LENR is accepted into the scientific peerage, there is no need to challenge any of the theories that say cold fusion is impossible, using Occam’s Razor or any other criterion. Only when the evidence is accepted can Occam’s Razor be applied to say that yes, Charlotte, there is nuclear fusion taking place under extraordinarily low pressures and temperatures: we need a new theory.
There’s also a lot of money at stake, and that warps people’s judgment. There are huge lasers being built as I write to explore the world of inertial-confinement fusion. There is the enormous “subsidy tomb” (as the Germans call it) of ITER in Europe, intended to someday explore the world of magnetic-confinement fusion. While both of these are valid (if expensive) endeavors in pure science, they’ve been cheating a bit to draw funding interest by talking about “fusion energy” as the salvation of civilization, once fossil fuels start to run out. A new approach like Rossi-Focardi LENR is going to cut that ploy off at the knees, and may even sink the hot-fusion projects completely: that’s billions of dollars at stake, all of it supporting highly-specialized manufacturing and labor groups, most of which are going to find themselves out of business and/or without jobs.
There’s a very strong financial incentive to not allow LENR into the body of accepted evidence. And Occam’s Razor doesn’t help with that at all.
So “It’s Occam’s Razor, stupid,” isn’t really very meaningful, and reflects badly on anyone who says such a thing.