Occam's Razor

"When I see a crop circle, I could hypothesize a conspiracy of local farmboys who spent a whole night in a field trampling crops down with primitive earthling tools. But a much simpler hypothesis would be a fellow alien with a crop-writer who wanted to contact a ship in orbit. Hitchhikers do this all the time."

Also called:

  • Law of parsimony
  • Law of economy
  • Law of succinctness
  • The Lex Parsimoniae

Occam's Razor is a logical principle first described in the 14th century by William of Ockham, an English Franciscan friar and philosopher. It is often used to evaluate the usefulness of a theory. Its main tenet is that "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." It can be summed up with the phrase "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras."

Most theories have a foundation of underlying premises (the aforementioned "entities"), all of which need to be true for the theory itself to be true. Occam's Razor suggests believing the theory with the fewest underlying premises (the aforementioned "not multiplied beyond necessity").

Example: There have been theories that Ancient Astronauts built the Egyptian Pyramids instead of humans. For this to be true, we'd need the following givens:

  1. aliens exist note 
  2. they are intelligent note 
  3. they exist contemporaneously with humans note 
  4. they develop interstellar/intergalactic travel note 
  5. they know how to find us note 
  6. they can build pyramids note 
  7. they would not leave any evidence of their existence note 
  8. they would waste time building pyramids.

The more normal theory only requires that:

  1. humans exist note 
  2. humans can build pyramids note 
  3. humans would waste time building pyramids. note 

You can probably guess which theory Occam would agree with, and why.

In short, when trying to examine an incident to figure out why it happened, a simple answer involving the commonplace and reasonable is more likely to be correct. Note: more likely, not always likely. For decades, doctors presumed that people got stomach ulcers because of stress and bad diet, as this was the simplest explanation at the time; thus they encouraged people to reduce the conditions that caused them to be exposed to stress, and to eat a bland diet. Then it was discovered that bacteria were the true cause of most stomach ulcers, meaning stress and diet had little to do with whether or not you got an ulcer. The previous treatments, though reasonable, were also wrong.

Occam's Razor is the bane of Conspiracy Theorists everywhere for the same reason: take a look at the Apollo moon landings, which a good percentage, in the single figures, believe was hoaxed. Often people will find "evidence" that the landings could never have taken place, but it rests on the arguments that the US government:

  1. were willing and able to expend untold billions of dollars more than they were ever officially allocated on smoke-and-mirrors attempts;
  2. were smart enough to fool 99% of the population (which some would contest);
  3. were simultaneously stupid enough not to cover their tracks;
  4. had the technological and film-making ability to actually fake the moon-landing footagenote ;
  5. were able to pay off and swear to silence thousands of people working at NASA and other companies for forty years when they couldn't even pull off a simple burglary;
  6. were able to pay off and swear to silence the Soviet Military (and its intelligence directorate, the GRU) during a period where the Red Army, its budget, its personnel, and its material was subjected to intense and ongoing analysis by its enemies (the Communist Party and the KGB) without arousing their suspicions, or paid off and swore to silence all three factions despite the natural inclination of all three to seriously humiliate their mutual enemy;
  7. and either persuaded the Soviets to destroy every record of the deal so thoroughly that no trace of it remains in now-declassified Soviet archives, even though the Soviets had never bothered to do anything of the sort before (on the grounds that their country would endure until the end of human history and said archives would never be seen by hostile eyes), or have since bought the silence of The New Russia as well.

After that, you'd think that the simplest explanation was to, you know, actually send people there (That Mitchell and Webb Look has a brilliant series of sketches on this idea, including the moon landing).

The Razor is commonly misinterpreted as saying, "The simplest theory is the best." or, even worse, "The simplest theory is always right." This is not correct in Real Life unless it is the simpler of two theories which make predictions with identical degrees of accuracy. All other aspects of the theory have to be equal before simplicity is taken into account. It also requires that all the data are accounted for. Newtonian physics are simpler than modern theories and were sufficient to take man to the Moon, but (with all due respect to the man) Sir Isaac simply could not explain all the data eventually collected—especially since a lot of the offending material had not been collected when Principia Mathematica was published. This required some other smart man—namely, Albert Einstein—to formulate more complex theories, particularly the outrageous stew we call "Relativity" which functions along completely different rules. Now, Occam's Razor would suggest that there must be some Grand Unified Theory that explains why physics work one way on an atomic level and completely differently on a larger-than-atomic level. Much of the last century of scientific research (including Einstein's) has centered around trying to come up with one. They haven't succeeded. So far, Occam's Razor is wrong, and the universe simply functions according to completely different sets of rules depending on an object's physical size, for no good reason whatsoever. Nobody likes this, but in the end, nothing says that an explanation must be simple.

Another very common mistake is to summon up the Razor in a debate over a point that is entirely moot in order to add weight to a particular argument. This usage is entirely fallacious as the Razor does nothing more than recommend the hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions. It is not a magical tool that points to the right answer. In a lab it will be used hundreds or thousands of times, with each and every one of the chosen hypothesis being rigorously tested, before a correct answer is found. In a debate the Razor will be used once and will, invariably, choose the user's answer as the 'right' one. Funny, that. Another problem thrown up in such situations is the scramble to determine whose theory is simplest and thus which one "benefits" from the application of the Razor. Unfortunately, thinking that Occam's Razor is a magic tool for finding the right answer is not restricted to online debates, it is also an altogether too common reason for medical misdiagnosis. While not every condition is worthy of Dr. House (who actually declared Occam's Razor to be a fallacy), doctors have something of a tendency to default to the most likely diagnosis and may ignore evidence to the contrary, particularly if they are tired or busy. This means that doctors sometimes refuse to diagnose, or even look for, diseases such as meningitis, sometimes with deadly results.

Always remember: Occam's Razor is a guideline, not a rule. Be careful of facts that are subjective in nature or may not be fully established.

The inverse of this is Arkham's Razor, where the most bizarre solution is most likely to be the correct one.