“Assume the simple position” (Occam’s Razor)


I have been doing this long enough and with enough frequency that if one read a post a day it would take a year to finish the blog. I heartily encourage this activity, but for readers lacking the time or ambition, I can sum up the blog’s contents as being an endorsement of Occam’s Razor. This is the notion that, all other things being equal, the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. Closely related to the Razor is the notion of the burden of proof, which states that the person making an assertion is required to provide evidence for it and not merely challenge listeners to disprove it.

Carl Sagan famously noted that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Suppose I amble into work late and my co-workers wonder why. One postulates that I may have encountered the road construction they had. They were there, it happened to them, they know I take the same route, so that seems a likely reason. But another wonders if I was delayed by persons on horseback engaged in a medieval war reenactment, which had taken place over the weekend on a family farm. A third co-worker speculates that I may have slipped into a wormhole where aliens detained me to obtain skin and blood samples before releasing me back onto my usual route.

The first choice requires just one assumption, that I had encountered the same construction as my co-worker had. From there, the number of assumptions increase. The equestrian excuse would require that the reenactment went beyond the scheduled date and took place in a locale other than its designated point. The final explanation would require assuming the existence in Moline of both wormholes and aliens and assume I had encountered both on my commute.

Anyone espousing the third option would have the highest difficulty level since it employs the most assumptions to reach its conclusions. Still, such attempts to shift the burden of proof and bypass Occam’s Razor happen all the time.

O.J. Simpson’s defense team attempted to shift the burden to the prosecution by trying to make it prove that Nicole wasn’t killed by Colombian drug dealers who mistook her for Faye Resnick. Judge Lance Ito disallowed this line of reasoning, owing to a total lack of evidence. “Prove it wasn’t drug dealers” is not a valid defense argument and such reasoning is not critical thinking.

While the number of assumptions is important, so too are the quality of those assumptions. The Simpson trial, like most criminal cases, had prosecutors assuming  the defendant’s guilt and defense lawyers presuming his innocence. But there was no reason to think drug lords were targeting Faye Resnick, much less confusing her for Nicole Brown Simpson, as this required more assumptions than concluding that the relevant evidence included a trail of O.J.’s DNA leading from the crime scene to his vehicle and residence, his history of abusing the victim, and bloody shoe imprints. 

Now let’s apply this to science. A blogger at logicofscience.com wrote about authoring a paper on the diet of a turtle species. In his research, he collected the shelled creatures, had them defecate in a bucket, then examined the feces. There, he found a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish. The conclusion was that these turtles ate a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish, since this explanation required the fewest assumptions.

The biology blogger noted he could have instead deduced that “someone went out before me, captured the turtles, force fed them crawfish, then put the turtles back into the pond.” Or he could have assumed this force feeding was done by aliens. But theses options would require unfounded assumptions, the latter necessitating a step beyond even the middle choice. Such conclusions are usually instances of begging the question, where speakers reach the conclusion first, then attempt to buoy that conclusion with unproven premises.

No one takes issue with the science when it involves reptile diets or other noncontroversial topics that leave world views and favored industries untouched. But if the scientific conclusions do impact those areas, there are those who seek to dull Occam’s razor, beg the question, and contort themselves in order to finagle around the evidence.

Young Earth Creationists, for example, insist all animals and plants were destroyed in a worldwide flood 5,000 years ago. This means that in the YEC scenario, all corals today would had to have started growing around the time the Pyramids were constructed. But corals grow about a foot a year under ideal conditions. The Great Barrier Reef would have taken more than 500,000 years to reach its current size.

For corals to have gotten as large as they are today, if they only started growing 5,000 years ago, they would had to have grown at a rate many times more than  has ever been observed. The standard YEC response is that perhaps growth rates were much faster in the past than they are now and that the rate has slowed down exponentially since, for reasons unknown.

They employ the same thought process with being able to see stars millions of light years away. This proves Earth has been around at least as long as it has taken the most distant starlight to reach us. But the YEC answer is that maybe the speed of light has not been constant. The coral and starlight responses are both instances of ad hoc reasoning backed by no evidence. It requires assuming that an aspect of botany or astronomy is much different from what has ever been observed or recorded. It is also begging the question. They begin with the assumption that a worldwide flood wiped everything out 5,000 years ago, then try to make all evidence (or in these cases, speculation) fit that assumption. They go from conclusion to evidence, whereas science works the other way.

A third area of creative deduction by YECs centers of alternating layers of light and dark sediment that accumulate in lakes. The different colors are the result of seasonal changes, with light layers made in winter and dark ones made in the summer. Some lake centers feature millions of these layers, so we can draw one of these conclusions:

  1. A set of two layers forms every year in these lakes. Some lakes contain millions of layers. Therefore these lakes are millions of years old.
  1. Layers were formed during the flood, through an unknown mechanism. By a second unknown means, floodwaters sorted the particles into alternating layers of sediment, then the layers managed to form only over lake beds, and did so at a rate of 10 layers per minute, rather than two per annum, which is the only rate that has been observed.

The YEC takes on these occurrences requires rejecting all data and scientists’ understanding of the natural processes involved. Their response to the scientifically-deduced facts are to offer unsupported ad hoc speculation that proposes unknown and unworkable mechanisms. They fail to manage even the first step in the Scientific Method, observation, because no one has observed the phenomena they claim are occurring. As our turtle excrement-collecting blogger noted, “If we grant creationists the ability to create unknown mechanisms in order to derive interpretations that match their pre-existing biases, then an infinite number of interpretations become possible. It is always possible to generate an ad hoc argument, which is why Occam’s Razor is so important. It tells us that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one.”

That is why almost all conspiracy theories collapse under the weight of Occam’s Razor. Some anti-vaxxers claim that pharmaceutical executives pay immunologists to say vaccines don’t cause autism. Here, we have two options:

  1. Ethical scientists reach their conclusions through sound research.
  2. These hundreds of researchers from multitudinous institutions and companies are being paid to falsify data. Moreover, none of these hundreds who are in it solely for ill-gotten gain have been lured away by wealthy anti-vaxxers offering to pay them more.

This shill accusation is similar to the charge leveled at climate scientists. On this issue, the two primary competing options are:

  1. 99.8 percent of the 12,000 peer-reviewed papers published in the last five years have attested to anthropogenic global warming, so this is likely happening.
  2. Anonymous elites are paying these thousands of climate scientists to reach this conclusion and fabricate data, yet this plan is being foiled by oil company executives and Facebook posters exposing the plot.

Again, from the logicofscience: “Ask whether there is any reason to think the scientists are corrupt other than the fact that you don’t like their conclusions.”

Going back to the Sagan quote, if one is going to assert the scientific consensus is wrong about climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, vaccines, or GMOs, it is insufficient to offer, “Were you there when the universe began?” or “Follow the money trail.” The burden of proof is on the speaker to provide clear, well-researched, and reasoned evidence for their position.

In some instances, there is no damage other than to the listener’s intelligence. Ancient Aliens attempted to branch into evolutionary biology by suggesting extraterrestrial visitors may have altered dinosaur DNA in order to have them develop into smaller creatures like birds and coelacanth.

In other instances, the misinformation is fatal. Anti-vaxxers mistakenly cite improved sanitation and nutrition as the reason for the decline in infectious diseases over the last century and a half. While those were welcomed health advances, when it comes to disease eradication, here are the two choices offered:

  1. Vaccines work by mimicking disease agents for the real deal, which is why instances of the diseases plummet after vaccines are introduced, and spike when vaccination rates fall.
  2. The introduction of vaccines has coincidentally occurred at a time when the impacts of improved sanitation and nutrition were beginning to be seen. This benefit has extended to countries with deplorable sanitation like India. This has even effected airborne diseases like rubella, which are impacted by sanitation and nutrition improvements by an unknown means. A decline in vaccine rates does not impact disease; rather there has been a coincidental reduction in sanitary and nutrition benefits for unknown reasons when vaccine rates go down. The reason all this is not universal knowledge is because nearly every immunologist is pumping out fabricated propaganda to discredit sanitation and nutrition improvements and cover for vaccines, which actually cause disease.

Those who embrace the latter idea also cotton to the idea of a repressed cancer cure. But which requires the fewest assumptions: That oncologists have been unable to find a panacea for a disease that has more than 100 variations, or that they have, but are eschewing everlasting fame, untold fortune, worldwide adulation, and the chance to spare them and their loved ones, in order to continue enriching the pharmaceutical industry, which has yet to figure out there is more money to be saved in selling that cure?

Meanwhile, 9/11 Truthers talk about the hijackers having little flight training and Tower 7 collapsing despite not bearing a direct hit. They hypothesize that Flight 93 was shot down, insist that a missile hit the Pentagon, and make repeated references to jet fuel and steel beams. However, even if all their claims were valid, it would no more indicate guilt by the Bush Administration that it would cause blame to fall on Islamic terrorists, communists, the Irish Republican Army, or the few remaining Branch Davidians. Which requires the fewest assumptions: That a wealthy and committed terrorist leader with the means and stated desire to pull of such an attack did so, as indicated by passenger phone calls, conversations between hijackers and air traffic control, and flight manifests; or that it was all an elaborate hoax that included WTC security workers, victim’s family members, the airlines, Pentagon witnesses, BBC reporters, and even Philippines police officers, who in 1995 uncovered and turned over to the FBI evidence of what became the 9/11 plot?

One final example, focusing on Bigfoot, which has two primary options. Which of these contains the fewest assumptions?

  1. A complete lack of verifiable evidence strongly suggests its non-existence.
  2. A sustainable population of eight-foot bipedal apes has lived, bred, hunted, and roamed from the Northwest Territories to the Bayou for two centuries without once being shot by a hunter, hit by a vehicle, or leaving behind a corpse, skeleton, fur patch, or excrement.

It is not on me to disprove an ad hoc rationale about a troop of lumbering beasts mastering stealth and adroitly avoiding human contact at all cost. The burden falls on those who make these assertions the centerpiece of their Sasquatch Science.


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