When I’m confronted with a complicated problem, and I’m trying to understand possible explanations, I often rely on Occam’s “razor” (which isn’t a razor at all).
William of Occam was a medieval philosopher who took his name from the town of Occam, the village in Southern England where he was born in 1285 (pause here and consider what your “first name + of + birthplace” name would be – mine would be “Michael of St. Paul”). He was educated at Oxford and became a Franciscan monk. His first major work as a philosopher, Summa Logicae, landed him in hot water with the pope and he was eventually ex-communicated. But his name lives on.
The idea behind Occam’s razor is simplicity itself. It holds that when considering something unknown, the simplest possible explanation is usually the correct one.
Why was this a big deal, you might wonder? Perhaps – and I’m making this up – as the educated class of his time were forming explanations of the world around them people attached greater weight to more complicated and abstruse theories. We needn’t look far to see that this habit is alive and well in our own times.
The reason Occam’s razor became known as a “razor” is that requires us, when confronting a problem, to shave away unlikely assumptions to arrive at the most likely explanation.
Here’s a simple example of Occam’s razor:
Problem: your car runs out of gas while you’re driving.
Explanation A: It’s been a long time since you last filled up and you weren’t paying attention to your gas gauge.
Explanation B: Last night, a thief inserted a hose into your gas tank, drained the contents, and left you with an empty tank.
Explanation B requires more assumptions than explanation A, for example there was a gas thief prowling your neighborhood last night, the thief selected your car to target, the thief was willing to risk arrest to get a few gallons of your gas, the thief was able to defeat your car’s security features and get his siphon to work, and so forth.
Once you used Occam’s razor to shave away those implausible assumptions, you would attribute your stalled car to explanation A. You simply weren’t paying attention.
You can immediately see how Occam’s razor can be a powerful way to inoculate against conspiracy theories, which appear to be a bigger problem in our information-saturated world than they were in Occam’s 14th century world. Most conspiracy theories require a LOT of assumptions, to include the belief that the conspiracy involves a big group of humans who are ruthlessly coordinated yet able to keep it all a secret.
If there are couple things about human nature we all know, it is that a) the larger a group of humans gets, the worse the coordination, and b) humans are terrible at keeping secrets.
When we see those assumptions baked into a conspiracy theory, we should recognize them as the sort of implausible explanations Occam’s razor is designed to shave away. It doesn’t mean we’re necessarily right – it could be true that a large group of people are secretly coordinated around some nefarious goal – but Occam’s razor recognizes some of these assumptions as implausible and understands that their presence makes the explanation less likely than other, less complicated, ones.
In other forms of human endeavor, Occam’s razor has morphed into common sayings like “KISS” (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and the recognition that a more complex set of business rules will inevitably lead to more breakdowns in execution.
I have used Occom’s razor so often that it has become a trusted tool – sort of like grabbing a screwdriver and quickly using it for it’s intended purpose – before moving on.
Keep it simple. Shave away the implausible assumptions with the help of Willam of Occam, and his handy-dandy, non-electric, always available, lifetime guarantee razor.