One of my pet peeves is the term pet peeves. Another is the fact that Occam’s Razer is almost always misstated. I’ve heard educated people, people who should know better say it wrong. Everyone from Neil DeGrasse Tyson to Data on Star Trek.
What’s Occam’s (or Ockham’s) Razer you ask? It’s a principle to aid in problem-solving. It misstated thusly:
When choosing between several solutions to a problem, the simplest one is usually correct.
What it actually espouses is this:
When choosing between competing hypothesis, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
There is a world of difference between the two. First is the presumption of a correct answer. Second is the fact that a ‘simple solution’ might require many unsupported assumptions. When applied correctly, Occam’s Razer is a great tool for rational thought. Combine this with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” and you’re well on your way to not having a definitive answer to anything.
That’s the appeal of the misquoted Razer–a simple, definitive solution. Are there definitive solutions? Of course. Or not. Are some answers simple? Yes! Can you arrive at those answers simply? I’d say… usually not without some work. If you want answers you have to dig for them, and the first thing you have to dig through is all the bullshit–which in this current political cycle, we’re neck-deep in.
Occam’s Razer gives us a powerful tool with which to do the digging. By taking a proposition and then asking, “What assumptions are being made? Are those assumptions valid?” We can begin to assess and test the plausibility of the statement.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
For any of you out there saying that I overthink things, this is for you. This example will only take a little thought, but will clearly demonstrate how important it is to take that extra second to question things because not doing so can and has lead to bad legislation that negatively affects peoples’ lives.
Full disclosure, I have transgender friends that I care quite a bit about. Some might say this makes me biased. Possibly, but I think it makes me a little more informed than average.
The reason given for passing the law in North Carolina was more-or-less this: if we don’t, perverts will start dressing up as women and will rape/molest/exploit our daughters, sisters, and wives. On the surface, without any facts, this sounds at least plausible. This hypothesis makes a single assumption: that this has never occurred to perverts before.
But have dudes been going into women’s locker rooms and bathrooms because of the legislation? Yes. In my neck of the woods there was a man who entered the women’s locker room at a community swimming pool. Let’s Sherlock the situation.
He dressed and presented as a man. Since this incident, he has disappeared back to wherever he came from. He went to the same pool twice in one day within a short span of time, which unless you are reaaaally into swimming, most people don’t do. He completely ignored the discomfort of the cisgendered women/children he encountered. He said that he had a right to be there because of the law, but made no verbal or physical attempt to identify as female. Of course, I can’t speak for every transgender person, but I believe that what this guy did showed a reckless disregard for the very real challenges and danger transgender people face; his behavior and attitude displayed none of the compassion, empathy, or concerns I’ve come to associate with trans people. What this guy did required zero courage, just a lot of gall.
This isn’t rocket science. Given the (lack of) evidence, and a modicum of common-sense, my hypothesis is that this guy is a fucking troll and should have at least been kicked out and banned, if not arrested. My one assumption is that he is not transgender and that this was not his coming out, because he in no way indicated that it was. Not much of a stretch. Calling him a troll is not an assumption, but is based on the evidence of his timing, the fact that he made it a point to cite the law, his confrontational attitude, and the fact that he came from nowhere and went right back to nowhere. Classic troll. His behavior was enabled by a perfect storm of political correctness trumping common sense, inflammatory political rhetoric dominating political discourse, and a fundamental ignorance of trans issues.
What I can’t assume is that he’s a pervert, because no history of that sort of behavior was cited (but who knows what might have come out had the police been summoned), nor did he masturbate, take pictures, or demonstrate any other legally actionable behavior.4
In any case, the underlying assumption at the core of the anti-transgender legislation is patently wrong. There have been sex offenders, there are sex offenders, and there will be sex offenders. Which transgender people are NOT. Can I or anyone guarantee there has never been or will never be a transgender sex offender? Of course not, because we are all human. But the fact is that granting people basic civil rights will not suddenly make someone a sex offender who isn’t. Also, the fact that there are sex offenders doesn’t negate or invalidate the discrimination and danger that transgender people face every day; nor should the fact that there are transgenders lessen our ability to punish actual sex offenders. What we need is rational discourse, common sense, the compassion to give people the benefit of the doubt when there is one, and the courage to prosecute when there isn’t.
Building 7 – 9/11 Conspiracy or…?
On one of his podcasts Joe Rogan had a rather strong back-and forth with skeptic Brian Dunning about, among other things, the destruction of the 7 World Trade Center building (video here, forward to 7:50 to get to the part in question). The crux of the argument was that Joe said that the video of the building collapse “looked like a controlled demolition.” He went on to say that he didn’t think it was. Dunning argued that Joe was implying that it was. Which is horseshit, and I side with Joe 100%. A personal observation is not the same as a statement of causality. Where Dunning screwed up was in his desire to be right and prove that Joe said something that he didn’t. Rather than using critical thinking, he was just being critical. What he should have pointed out was that evolution has prepared people to (among other things) 1. see patterns, and 2. make fast decisions.1 In other words, to jump to conclusions based on insufficient evidence.
Unfortunately, Dunning didn’t go this direction, and we didn’t get the productive conversation we could have had. It could have gone something like this:
Let’s for the sake of argument jump to the Occam Wrong conclusion and say it looked like a controlled demolition because it was a controlled demolition. But what are the assumptions being made? Here are a few I came up with, and I’m sure you can come up with many more with a little thought: there were conspirators ready to blow up building 7; that the explosives were planted in the building sometime before the 9/11 attacks (it would have been impossible to do so day-of); that there was something in that building that could only be eradicated by taking down the whole building or that there was profit in doing so; that the people who planted the explosives either knew about the 9/11 attacks and/or were prepared to take advantage of such a disaster; that something necessitated that the building be brought down; that the people who planted the explosives were confident that they wouldn’t be detonated accidentally or be discovered by regular maintenance; that whoever set the charges had plans of the building, uninterrupted access as well as engineering and demolition experience; that the high explosives used were untraceable, or the transactions were covered up by a larger government cover-up; that the potentially dozens, or more people (and intelligence organizations) required for such an operation could keep it secret to this day.2 That’s a whole lot of assumptions without a single shred of proof. To believe in a hypothesis with so many unsupported assumptions isn’t just irrational, it’s c00-coo for Cocoa Puffs.
So invoking Doyle, I’ll start with what little I know. The primary force that a building is designed to withstand is gravity, which acts straight down. Considering the average skyscraper weighs 222,500 tons (or 445 million pounds), that’s a lot of force pushing down. I also know that engineers (as pointed out in a previous article) do not design for fringe cases, but for the most likely, and design tolerances that exceed the theoretical maximum by a reasonable amount (remember that it was a big deal when Ramius called for 105% on the reactor in The Hunt for Red October?). So I know that a building isn’t designed to be tilted 45ᵒ or to be hit by a meteor or plane fully loaded with fuel (though this has happened before). Lastly, I know from the news reports that the fire in the building burned for a long time, overwhelming the fire suppression system. I also know the streets were a mess and that emergency services were also overwhelmed.
So what kind of hypothesis can I come up with given what I’ve seen and what I know? Just this: there is something inherent in the design of a skyscraper that will cause it to fail in a manner similar to a controlled demolition. This requires just one assumption, which is stated in the hypothesis itself. But how to verify this hypothesis? Google is so utterly spammed by conspiracy theories as to be virtually useless. So instead, I turned to Jeffrey Berman, the Thomas & Marilyn Nielson associate professor at the University of Washington’s school of Civil & Environmental Engineering. His research area is seismic design of steel structures; destructive and nondestructive testing; structural control and passive energy dissipation, so I thought he would be well suited to answering this question.
The first thing he said was that every skyscraper is different, which kind of blew my hypothesis out of the water. However, he went on to say that most buildings are designed to withstand 2-3 hours of fire and he pointed out that the Building 7 fire went on for as long as 10 hours. This caused the load bearing structures to deform, creating instability which lead to a floor-by floor collapse… which is exactly what we saw.3
So I was almost right. Huzzah!
Don’t over-think things. Don’t agonize over what you don’t or can’t know. But do take a moment to think a little. We’re all busy, have things to take care of, responsibilities and obligations to ourselves and others. It’s understandable. It’s also understandable to have a knee-jerk reaction to emotionally charged issues or stories. But after that emotion has cooled down, step back from your feelings and use your critical thinking. Think about what you know, learn about what you don’t. Challenge your assumptions and the assumptions of others, particularly our elected officials, the people who are entrusted with making decisions that will affect the long-term well being of yourself and your neighbors. Applying Occam’s Razor doesn’t mean you’ll always come up with the right conclusion… or any conclusion at all, but at least it can help you weed out some of the wrong ones.
P.S. Many thanks to Skye for your help in writing this article. Your clear thinking and boldness are an inspiration.
P.P.S. My heart and thoughts go out to the friends and family of the victims and to the survivors of the horrific attack in Orlando. You are loved.
1. Here’s a great video discussing the difference between science based and evidence based medicine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNzOOAiiaNs
The ability to find patterns is so important to your survival that your brain would rather see a few imaginary patterns than miss genuine instances of cause and effect… [that is] the price you pay for being so amazing the rest of the time — Richard Wiseman
2. As Manning and Snowden so aptly demonstrated, there are no secrets quite so fleeting as government secrets.
3. There are many real-world examples which demonstrate you don’t have to completely blow something up in order to destroy it. As depicted in the WWII film The Dambusters, based on the real-life attacks on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams, when great enough force is acting on a structure, all you have to do is weaken it for it to fail.
4. Otherwise he would have been arrested. I still think the police should have been called, but this is what happens when common sense loses out to Politcal Correctness.