Occam’s razor is essential to separating ‘science from superstition’, famous professor claims

Occam’s Razor—an elegant problem-solving principle often attributed to a medieval Franciscan monk—isn’t just a tool we should all use, it’s at the heart of science itself and is valuable for separating legitimate ideas from superstition, pseudoscience, or fake news , according to a recent paper by a renowned professor of molecular genetics.

The answer is simple (r)

What became known as Occam’s Razor was made famous by William of Occam, a philosopher and theologian who lived in England in the 14th century. Aspects of the idea had already been formulated by earlier thinkers, but Occam’s version is the one we know today.

The razor is essentially the idea that when dealing with competing explanations for the same hypothesis, we should choose the one that requires fewer assumptions. It is usually expressed as “the simplest solution is usually the best”, but while this kind of gets back to Occam’s original point, this popular version is not entirely accurate. But basically you can imagine it with the following example:

If you’re walking down the street and you hear horse hooves clattering behind you, what’s more likely to be a horse or a zebra? Of course, there are certain geographic locations where the latter may be more possible, but in most cases it would be safer to assume the horse is behind you.

For example, if you live in London and think it might be a zebra behind you, your explanation would require you to explain why a striped African mammal is carelessly trotting through a busy British city. How did it get there? Why hasn’t anyone stopped him?

If you think of a horse, then you need fewer assumptions to make the hypothesis fit. A stray horse in the city is quite unlikely, but a police horse is more of a possibility and they are a feature of the London police force.

This line of thinking is not meant to say that a zebra in London is impossible, just improbable. But you could substitute a unicorn for the zebra, and your explanation of its presence in London would require even more steps, ones we know to be impossible, to accommodate it.

Just as important now as it ever was

For William of Ockham, this principle was a useful way of distinguishing probable from improbable explanations, and it was later adopted as a hallmark of rational thought by the likes of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. And it’s as important today as it ever was, Professor Jonjo McFadden argues in a new paper.

“What is science?” McFadden asked in a statement. “The rise of issues such as vaccine hesitancy, climate skepticism, alternative medicine and mysticism reveal significant levels of mistrust or misunderstanding of science among the general public. The ongoing investigation into COVID also highlights how scientific ignorance extends to the heart of government.”

“Part of the problem is that most people, even most scientists, don’t have a clear idea of ​​what science really is.”

For McFadden, proponents of superstitious ideas or conspiracy theories work in opposition to Occam’s razor, creating increasingly complex assumptions to make their explanations fit, but scientific thinking seeks simpler answers.

“While practitioners of mysticism, alternative medicine, pseudoscience, or fake news may invent spirits, demon conspiracies, or Elvis on the Moon to make sense of their world, scientists will always accept the simplest solution to even the most complex problems.” That’s the beauty of Occam’s Razor,” McFadden added.

“While mysticism, alternative medicine and fake news often resort to complex explanations such as ghosts or moon landing conspiracies, scientists seek the simplest solutions to complex problems. Today’s world full of pseudoscience and misinformation stems in part from a misunderstanding of science. “

Part of the problem is that science is not taught well in most education systems. It is often presented simply as “a collection of vague theories and complicated equations” that, as McFadden explains, “can overwhelm students by repelling them.”

“However, presenting science as a method for finding simple explanations for the complexity of our world using experiments, mathematics and logic can make it accessible to everyone, including politicians.”

The article was published in the journal Annals.

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