Occam’s razor:

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. 

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. 

About mmpant

Prof. M.M.Pant has a Ph.D in Computational Physics, along with a Professional Law Degree, and has been a practitioner in the fields of Law, IT enabled education and IT implementation. Drawing upon his experience in world class international institutions and having taught in various modes of Face-to-Face, Distance Learning and Technology Enhanced Training, Prof. Pant is now exploring the nature of institutions which will be successors to the IITs, which represented the 1960s, IIMs, which represented the 1970 and Open Universities which were the rage of 1980s & 90s. He believes that the convergence between various media and technologies would fundamentally alter the way learning would be created, packaged, and delivered to learners. His current activities are all directed toward actual implementation of these new age educational initiatives that transform education in the post Internet post WTO era.. Prof. Pant, has been a Former Pro-Vice Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and has been on the faculty of IIT – Kanpur (the premier Engineering institution in India), MLNR Engineering College and Faculty & Visiting Professor - University of Western Ontario-Canada. He has been visiting scientist to research centers in Italy, England, Germany & Sweden and has delivered international lectures with about 80 papers published. During his association of almost 15 years with the IGNOU, Prof. Pant has served as the Director Computing and has been the Member of All Bodies (i.e. School boards, Academic council, Planning board, Finance committee and the Board of management). With his interest in Law, backed with practice of Law in a High Court, and his basic training in Science and IT, Prof. Pant has been particularly interested in the Cyber Law, Patent & trade mark issues, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues etc. and has been involved with many activities, conferences on “Law & IT” Prof. Pant is presently; • Advisor to Media Lab Asia - Chairman of working group on ICT for Education, chairman of PRSG handling projects on ICT for education. • Lead Consultant for an ADB funded project for ICT in Basic Education in Uzbekistan • Member of the drafting Group for India’s National Policy on ICT in education • Chairman of the group creating books for class 11 and 12 students on ‘Computers and Communication Technology’ appointed by the NCERT • Preparing a ‘Theme Paper” for the NCTE in the area of ICT and Teacher Training • Advisor and mentor to several leading Indian and Multi-national Companies in the area of education. Prof. Pant has in the recent past been ; • Member – Board of Management – I I T, Delhi for 6 years (two consecutive terms) • One-man committee to create the Project Report & Legislation for Delhi IT-enabled Open University • Advisor to the Delhi Government on Asian Network of Major Cities Project (ANMC-21) distance learning project in association with Tokyo Metropolitan Government. • Chairman Board of Studies, All India Management Association With his mission to create and implement new business opportunities in the area of e-learning & learning facilitation, Prof. Pant has promoted Planet EDU Pvt. Ltd., as its Founder & Chairman, along with a team of highly experienced and skilled professionals from Education & Training, Operations, IT and Finance.
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