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Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Tyranny of Simple Explanations | The Atlantic

Philip Ball, writer based in London summarizes, "The history of science has been distorted by a longstanding conviction that correct theories about nature are always the most elegant ones."

A memorial to Nicolaus Copernicus in Warsaw, Poland
Photo: ldambies/Shutterstock

Imagine you’re a scientist with a set of results that are equally well predicted by two different theories. Which theory do you choose?
This, it’s often said, is just where you need a hypothetical tool fashioned by the 14th-century English Franciscan friar William of Ockham, one of the most important thinkers of the Middle Ages. Called Ockam’s razor (more commonly spelled Occam’s razor), it advises you to seek the more economical solution: In layman’s terms, the simplest explanation is usually the best one.
Occam’s razor is often stated as an injunction not to make more assumptions than you absolutely need. What William actually wrote (in his Summa Logicae, 1323) is close enough, and has a pleasing economy of its own: “It is futile to do with more what can be done with fewer.”
Isaac Newton more or less restated Ockham’s idea as the first rule of philosophical reasoning in his great work Principia Mathematica (1687): “We are to admit no more causes of natural things, than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” In other words, keep your theories and hypotheses as simple as they can be while still accounting for the observed facts.

This sounds like good sense: Why make things more complicated than they need be? You gain nothing by complicating an explanation without some corresponding increase in its explanatory power. That’s why most scientific theories are intentional simplifications: They ignore some effects not because they don’t happen, but because they’re thought to have a negligible effect on the outcome. Applied this way, simplicity is a practical virtue, allowing a clearer view of what’s most important in a phenomenon.

But Occam’s razor is often fetishized and misapplied as a guiding beacon for scientific enquiry. It is invoked in the same spirit as that attested by Newton, who went on to claim that “Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain, when less will serve.” Here the implication is that the simplest theory isn’t just more convenient, but gets closer to how nature really works; in other words, it’s more probably the correct one.

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that. But it’s what Francis Crick was driving at when he warned that Occam’s razor (which he equated with advocating “simplicity and elegance”) might not be well suited to biology, where things can get very messy. While it’s true that “simple, elegant” theories have sometimes turned out to be wrong (a classical example being Alfred Kempe’s flawed 1879 proof of the “four-color theorem” in mathematics), it’s also true that simpler but less accurate theories can be more useful than complicated ones for clarifying the bare bones of an explanation. There’s no easy equation between simplicity and truth, and Crick’s caution about Occam’s razor just perpetuates misconceptions about its meaning and value.   

The worst misuses, however, fixate on the idea that the razor can adjudicate between rival theories. I have found no single instance where it has served this purpose to settle a scientific debate. Worse still, the history of science is often distorted in attempts to argue that it has.

Take the debate between the ancient geocentric view of the universe—in which the sun and planets move around a central Earth—and Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, with the Sun at the center and the Earth and other planets moving around it. In order to get the mistaken geocentric theory to work, ancient philosophers had to embellish circular planetary orbits with smaller circular motions called epicycles. These could account, for example, for the way the planets sometimes seem, from the perspective of the Earth, to be executing backwards loops along their path.

Source: The Atlantic

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