You are at the baseball stadium watching your favorite team. The game is entering the sixth inning, and your team's starting pitcher has given up no hits and no walks. There is a buzz in the air, a strained hush combined with a tense murmur. People are furtively pointing toward the scoreboard to alert their neighbors. Meanwhile, you are dismayed that although his pitch count is low, the pitcher is looking gassed, and his speed and accuracy are dropping.
Just then, you notice the guy sitting next to you—some rube wearing a tee-shirt with an image of the opposing team's mascot and sporting a baseball hat with the Cabella's logo. He's drinking ballpark Chardonnay of all things, which might be what prompts him to gush loudly to his wife, "Gee, honey. we might get to see a perfect game! Too bad it’s the other team." The entire row in front of you winces as do you. Sure enough, the next batter up, the opposing team's best slugger, launches one over the centerfield fence. You seethe with rage. So much for the perfect game! So much for the no-hitter! So much for the shut-out!
As much as the acolytes and guardians of baseball superstition may want the answer to be A or B, logic dictates that the answer is E, but how do we know? After all, even if you are not superstitious, isn't it within the realm of possibility that there is such a thing in this universe as jinxing? Can you prove there is no such thing? By the same reasoning, can you prove that there was no tremor? Or no collusion?
While such assertions constitute the logical fallacy called argument from ignorance, it remains impossible to prove a negative to an absolute. The possibility of a jinx or of an undetected tremor or of criminal collusion or of extraterrestrial influence or of a magic whammy executed by the opposing team's official sorcerer or of any number of reasons you can imagine all remain in the category of the possible, not the probable or even the serious. Simply put, because you can conceive such scenarios, they are, by definition, not inconceivable, however illogical. After all, the human mind is a meaning-making machine well oiled by a lubricious (in every sense) imagination, and our ability to speculate is, frankly, awesome.
Every day and in many situations we face the dilemma of determining what is most likely true and what is merely possible on an infinitely diminishing scale. Whether large or small, distant or local, we must make sense of these dilemmas in order to successfully navigate our world. A disciplined, rational mind can do so with relative aplomb. Rationality does not yield perfection, but it does operate with a high degree of accuracy, much more so than irrational imaginings.
Nonetheless, without getting political, I am sure that anyone bothering to read this piece can readily think of current circumstances in which vast swaths of the population deny verified facts and basic logic to come to all manner of wild conclusions with profound and dangerous consequences for individuals and society. A perfect example of the futility of rebutting arguments from ignorance is the persistence of challenges to the 2020 presidential election results, which morph from moment to moment always with the assumption that each new objection must be real because it is imaginable. Be they election truthers, flat-Earthers, Holocaust deniers, COVID deniers, or Qanon, the ascendancy and sway of such nonsensical and often self-contradictory theories have led some to speculate that we are coming to the end of the influence of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment or Age of Reason is a roughly eighteenth-century epistemological shift that, for better or worse, helped dissolve Europe's adherence to superstition and magical thinking and brought about a new era marked by the dominance of logic and rationality. And, yes, I am aware how problematic this narrative I have just sketched is for a variety or reasons, not the least of which being its inherent Eurocentrism and the fact that pathologically illogical evils still thrived, such as the concurrent rise of chattel slavery. Nonetheless, that period's movement away from Medieval metaphysics has allowed Americans to enjoy a long, inequitable, and imperfect period of ascendant rationality, which now shows some signs of coming to a close. So, how can we dependably cut through rising irrational speculation and unwarranted belief and get to the heart of truth? In order to reliably do so, we would need a pretty sharp implement.
Which brings us to good old Occam.
Well before the Enlightenment, William of Ockham, commonly Occam, a fourteenth-century friar and philosopher, formulated a beautifully elegant heuristic, which has come to be known as Occam's razor. Occam's razor is often rendered as something like, "when faced with a problem, the simplest answer is usually the correct one." This formulation is a bit misleading, but it is serviceable for most daily situations. In actuality, though, Occam merely suggested that in solving problems, we should not add anything and thereby keep speculation down to a minimum. In other words, try to solve problems and dilemmas using only the evidence available. So, in the case of our disappointed baseball pitcher, in the absence of evidence of an earthquake, a nefarious gambling scheme, or a wondrous cosmic influence that bizarrely and confoundingly seems entirely localized on baseball diamonds, Occam's razor or plain reason, if you will, dictates that the pitcher just ran out of energy and thereby blew a perfect game.
While Occam’s razor is remarkably and almost universally useful, there are two dangers I can think of in utilizing it. The first is that Occam's razor is not and was never intended to be an absolute. For instance, there may very well be evidence that you are not aware of when you deploy the razor, so try to be thorough in your search for evidence and keep an open mind when applying Occam. Which leads us to the other, greater, danger, which is the human inclination to relentlessly search for evidence in a desire to reach a particular outcome or to overturn accepted wisdom. In this scenario, the problem-solver may overlook or dismiss evidence that does not support the foregone conclusion in favor of evidence that does. This tendency, known as confirmation bias, can lead to conspiracy thinking and other discredited belief systems, which Occam's razor, when properly applied, happens to be superb at slicing to shreds.
Despite these concerns, Occam's razor remains an indispensable tool for reaching conclusions, solving problems, and resolving dilemmas. It relies on a simple principle that what you see is what you get, that the evidence that exists is all you need to reach a logical end and the truth of a matter. Wielded wisely, Occam's razor can cut through poor habits of mind and help avoid wild and magical beliefs. It can shave away confirmation bias and group think. It is a tool as equally wonderful for everyday household use as for solving global conundrums. It is capable of slashing through lies, superstition, wild-eyed conspiracy theories, urban legends, and standard BS.
As miraculous as it may sound, though, it is not magic at all. It is just a razor.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.