What is Occam’s Razor?
In recent times whenever the topic of conversation turns to education, the phrase ‘critical thinking’ is often used. The Prime Minister has emphasised that we need to teach “ how to think” rather than “ what to think”. Instead of waiting for a few years in which the CBSE, NCERT or NIOS would bring about a ‘curriculum’ and rules for its administration, I have created short WhatsApp courses that anyone can pursue right now on a mobile phone on critical thinking and thinking clearly. The main components of a course on critical thinking are logical fallacies, cognitive biases ( which find their way even into AI and machine learning models), inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning and Occam’s razor. In this post, I am drawing attention to the concept of Occam’s razor. This is an important concept, but except for specialist courses in logic or Philosophy, it is not taught to our School, College or University students including in professional education. A notable exception being the International Baccalaureate Diploma program.
Way back in the 13th century, the Franciscan friar William of Ockham gave the world a rule: “Plurality must never be posited without necessity.” Put more simply, the simplest answer – that is, the answer that requires the fewest assumptions – is generally the correct one.
In the ~700 years since Friar William laid down his maxim, logicians have turned it into a rule: Occam’s razor that simply states that of any given set of explanations for an event occurring, the simplest one is most likely the correct one.
Occam’s razor makes no absolute assertions. It does not claim that the simplest answer is always correct. It merely suggests that, among all possible answers to a question one’s best bet is generally the one that requires the fewest assumptions.
The shift in perspective from the Ptolemaic geo-centric view of the planetary system to a helio-centric one by Copernicus is a great example of the application of this principle. Many other scientific paradigm shifts such as the tectonic plate theory by Alfred Wegener or Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution may be seen as examples of applying the Occam’s razor. Mendeleev’s organising the elements in the form of the well known periodic table is also an example of this. The reason Crick and Watson succeeded in finding the structure of the DNA as a double helix was perhaps their unwittingly applying Occam’s razor, whereas more established Scientists were not.
If we fast forward to software development and coding, elegance in software also arises from the application of Occam’s razor, whether or not the coder, programmer or software developer is aware of this term. GOTOless programming is yet another example. And you can ignore this principle only at great cost if you are a user experience or user interface creator.
I am sharing here links to a set of short videos that explain the concept with examples. The Copernican system and the tectonic plate model are covered in some of these. But some repetition helps in learning reinforcement.
- What is Occam’s razor (~5 minutes) ? https://youtu.be/YQ1qvuioRlk
- Occam’s razor ( and why we need it) (~4 minutes): https://youtu.be/9GI0EJyBxIg
- Occam’s razor and how it differs from other rational principles (~12 minutes) : https://youtu.be/3BxxKE-NcRo
- How to apply Occam’s razor ? ( ~4 minutes ) https://youtu.be/AQNxNeQ9cxw
- Occam’s razor (~6 minutes): https://youtu.be/b4Cxvfpi_AM
As future leadership would require choosing between alternatives and dealing with complex problem solving ( the topmost skill in the list of top 10 skills in the years 2015 as well as 2020 of the WEF: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/ ) being able to apply this razor would be an invaluable skill.
Occam’s razor is a vital tool in rigorous thought. By reducing the number of unsupported assumptions in an explanation, you reduce the likelihood of being wrong. That’s as true now as it was in the 13th century.
Today is International teachers day ( October 5th), and teachers the world over have explored remote learning in the last few months, often jumping to trying to replicate the physical classroom. Application of the concept of Occam’s razor may suggest other parsimonious alternatives that avoid the huge bandwidth required for video. I use WhatsApp.