Friday, January 4, 2008

Occam's Razor

I've heard this mentioned now in so many discussions, it's really starting to get grating. Mostly, because people are using wrong. For those that haven't read the Wikipedia entry, or *gasp* an authoritative source... I'll quote here:

William Ockham (c. 1285–1349) is remembered as an influential nominalist, but his popular fame as a great logician rests chiefly on the maxim attributed to him and known as Occam's razor Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem or "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily." The term razor refers to the act of shaving away unnecessary assumptions to get to the simplest explanation....

(Article/Wikipedia then goes on to includes quote about the origin - see link - but that's not what this is about...)

Thorburn, 1918, pp. 352-3; Kneale and Kneale, 1962, p. 243.
Now, with a basic working definition/explanation, I'll summarize my 'annoyances':

1. Occam's razor is not a proof. I can't say: Theory A is simpler than Theory B, therefore, by Occam's razor, Theory A is the correct choice. Indeed, science is flooded with examples where the simpler model is the less correct.

2. Occam's razor does not make a theory "Scientific". First, the term "Scientific" has become almost religious for some. Often, the term is used around a given set of theories, to the exclusion of others. Observability, repeatability, and testability have a lot more to do with how 'scientific' a theory is versus simplicity.

Reading the original, Occam's razor isn't really about comparing theories - it's just the idea that you should keep whatever you are working on as simple as possible. Yes, that extends to comparison of theories - but that doesn't say that you can use it to compare 2 radically different theories.

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