Shaving with Occam’s Razor in Activism & Radical Politics
Conspiracy theories proliferate in the blogosphere, via YouTube videos, and on social media. As the Internet penetrates further into our lives, it can seem like these beliefs become more common. This may be a side effect of communal reinforcementengendered by modern communication — irrespective of what evidence could confirm or deny these ideas, they seem to become more weighty and relevant the more our friends share them, the higher their view counts become on YouTube, or the more they show up in Google searches.
It concerns me when these theories appear among my activist friends, because I think it makes the entire movement look bad when we stray from fact into fantasy. Rather than address any specific conspiracy theory, I want to focus on a tool which I believe can help us focus on reality and its many tangible ills. That tool is Occam’s Razor, also known as the Principle of Simplicity (or the Principle of Parsimony if you want a nice five-dollar word).
Occam’s Razor: Simpler is Better
Occam’s Razor is named for William of Ockham, even though he neither invented the concept nor called it a razor. At its heart, the razor is the idea that simpler ideas are more likely to be true.
From the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Occam’s Razor:
Today, we think of the principle of parsimony as a heuristic device. We don’t assume that the simpler theory is correct and the more complex one false. We know from experience that more often than not the theory that requires more complicated machinations is wrong. Until proved otherwise, the more complex theory competing with a simpler explanation should be put on the back burner, but not thrown onto the trash heap of history until proven false.
It’s a complex world built on complex causes and effects. Science offers many examples where a simpler explanation is wrong. Yet it’s best to focus on simpler possibilities first, especially those with fewer variables. For example, an explanation of a given event which requires a few people hiding illegal or unethical acts is simpler than one which requires more. Simpler theories are not just more likely, but also easier to prove. Like Sherlock Holmes suggests, the improbable is sometimes true but first we must conclusively eliminate the rest.