In this post we are going to go over the several razors available for us to use. These razors, while commonly used by philosophers and scientists, in fact are often used by regular people, sometimes without even knowing that they are using them! However, these razors have nothing to do with the removal of bodily hair. They are called razors because they allow us to deal with the complexity of the world around us by reducing (cutting) the amount of possible explanations to various phenomena. We use them to simplify our thought processes and focus on meaningful explanations without getting lost in a bog of deceiving alternatives. We will examine several of these razors and see how they can be used to deal with the amount of bilge that is often found among claims of conspiracy theories, the pseudosciences, and the paranormal.
1) Occam’s Razor. This is the most well-known of all razors. It was developed by the English philosopher William of Ockham back in the fourteenth century. This razor posits that when faced with choosing between two competing alternatives that explain a phenomenon, we should choose the simplest one. In other words, we should not make things needlessly complicated. Many conspiracy theories such as those which claim that 9/11 was a US government-supported operation or that the US never landed on the moon run afoul of this razor. The sheer number of moving parts that would have to operate just right under a mantle of secrecy to bring about the events alleged in these conspiracies is just too complicated. The simpler explanation is that there was no conspiracy.
2) Hitchens's Razor. The late author, critic, and journalist Christopher Hitchens promulgated the dictum which states that what can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. The implication of this razor is that the burden of proof of a claim is with the claimant. You often hear many proponents of the occurrence of paranormal events declare that these phenomena have not been disproven. By this razor’s criteria, this argument is irrelevant. If you want people to accept a claim, YOU have to prove it is true, and you had better do a very damn good job at it to be taken seriously.
3) Sagan’s Standard. The late astronomer Carl Sagan popularized this aphorism which postulates that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This standard recognizes that not all claims are created equal. Fantastical claims which run counter to scientific laws or mountains of evidence should only be accepted upon the production of truly remarkable evidence. By the metrics of this razor, claims for psychic phenomena, faith healers, and other such things fall short of the level of proof required to accept them.
4) Alder’s Razor. The Australian mathematician Mike Alder published an essay describing this razor, although at the time he called it “Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword” (which is a cooler name). The brutal postulate of this razor (or sword) states that what cannot be settled by experiment or observation is not worth debating. If you have ever had an exchange with a flat Earth proponent and regretted afterwards having lost one hour of your life, you have experienced in the flesh what Alder was talking about.
5) Popper’s Falsifiability Principle. The great philosopher of science Karl Popper coined this famous principle which states that for something to be considered scientific it must be falsifiable. What this means is that there must be a way of proving that a claim is false if it indeed is false, otherwise said claim is not scientific. And if a claim is not scientific, its truthfulness will never be settled by observation or experiment (see Alder’s Razor above). A classical feature of the thinking of those making fantastical claims is that they always move the goalposts. No possible observation or experimental result can prove them wrong. Therefore they can’t be right. On the other hand, science can be right because it can be wrong.
6) Hanlon’s Razor. This particular razor of uncertain origin deals with the motivations behind those who propose fantastical claims. It states that one should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. While it is true that within the ranks of those who believe in and peddle fantastical claims there are many liars and cheats, this razor reminds us that there are also scores of honest individuals who are just guilty of self-delusion or who have been bamboozled into accepting and defending these claims.
In a recent post I reminded my readers about the dangers of keeping one’s mind too open (i.e. it can easily be filled with trash). Well, I guarantee that if you put these razors between you and the vast vortices of irrationality and trickery that swirl about us, your mind will be spared!
The image is by Horst.Burkhardt is used here under an Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The creationist movement has changed strategies. Many of their adherents have become proponents of what is called “Intelligent Design”. Within creationist circles, the Intelligent Design movement is mostly considered a strategy to make inroads into the secular world of science. In transitioning to Intelligent Design many of its proponents accept that the Earth is billions of years old, that there is no geological evidence of a worldwide Universal Flood, and that populations of living organisms have the capacity for microevolution, which is the ability to adapt to changes in the environment.
However, although Intelligent Design proponents accept that microevolution allows organisms to adapt and develop new abilities, they disagree with the idea that microevolution can give rise to evolutionary novelty, and they employ various strategies to explain away many of the numerous examples in the scientific literature where this has been documented. One strategy is to argue that these cases of generation of evolutionary novelty represent nothing but the mere reshuffling of preexisting genetic information. This argument is somewhat baffling as it is akin to saying that a new book is not really new because it is merely a reshuffling of words already present in previous books. But because more than reshuffling is often involved as random mutations are selected that improve certain abilities, Intelligent Design proponents have also argued that a Designer created the capacity in organisms to mutate information, reshuffle it, and adapt to changes in their environment! And, of course, if all else fails, Intelligent Design proponents will argue that the novelty in question is not a real novelty, that it is only a minor change, and therefore it is not evolution but rather just merely “adaptation”.
Despite their acceptance of microevolution, the Intelligent Design movement denies that macroevolution can take place. Macroevolution is large scale changes that produce novelty like the transition from reptiles to birds, or from land dwelling animals to sea dwelling animals. Scientists tell Intelligent Design proponents that macroevolution is what you get if you let microevolution go on for millions of years, but Intelligent Design proponents disagree. A favorite Intelligent Design argument is that nobody has ever observed macroevolution. And this is obvious, of course, because macroevolution is a slow process that takes many millions of years. However, various lines of evidence including the fossil record have allowed scientists to demonstrate quite convincingly that macroevolution has indeed occurred. But, of course, Intelligent Design proponents have several clever retorts.
For example, if there are no fossil intermediates between organisms “A” and “C”, Intelligent Design proponents will point this out claiming that “C” appeared suddenly (was designed) as opposed to evolving from A. However, if a fossil intermediate is found, “B”, Intelligent Design proponents will reply that there are no intermediates between “A” and “B”, and between “B” and “C”! Nothing but the discovery of highly detailed fossils documenting gradual change between two organisms will convince them that evolution has taken place. The obvious problem with this is that such highly detailed evidence may not be possible given the dynamics of the processes of fossilization and speciation, and the sizes of the populations of organisms involved in the process. In any case, why should the intermediate be an intermediate? After all it could be a different organism that was intelligently designed and that just happened to share characteristics of the other two!
In the elaboration of their criticism of evolution, Intelligent Design proponents also argue for the premise that they call “irreducible complexity”. What this means is that complex biological structures are composed of many parts each of which is necessary for their function. Therefore, they argue, a structure will not acquire its proper function unless all components are present and functional. Thus it is impossible for these structures to have evolved by accumulating their constituent parts because the assembly of these components into non-functional structures (at least until the last component is added and the whole becomes functional) would not be selected because they confer no advantage. To illustrate this principle, Intelligent Designers select structures that leave no fossil record such as bacterial flagella (a structure that allows bacteria to propel themselves) and demand that evolutionists come up with explanations as to how they could have evolved. Evolutionists have duly responded by pointing out several ways in which bacterial flagella could have evolved from simpler structures. But Intelligent Designers are not impressed. As described in the previous paragraph, they expect exhaustive step by step descriptive explanations of how these systems evolved, and when the ones provided don’t meet their demands, they declare a win for Intelligent Design.
So we can only arrive at one conclusion. Intelligent Design has been intelligently designed! The strategy is clear. First, bite the bullet and accept some of the most obvious things like geological and astronomical evidence for an old Earth and microevolution (there will be time to come back to a literal interpretation of Genesis later). Second, concentrate your attacks on those aspects of evolutionary theory that can only be studied through fragmentary evidence, such as events that have occurred in the distant pass, or indirect evidence, such as those involving structures that leave no fossil record. Finally, demand a level of proof that is incompatible even with the best possible evidence that could be generated.
As an offshoot of creationism, Intelligent Design has been tailored to achieve one goal, and that is to discredit evolution and endow with academic respectability the notion that a designer is behind the appearance of new life forms in our world. Of course, when your ideas cannot be proven wrong even with the best possible evidence, then your ideas are not scientific, and with all of its twisting and turning around the evidence, Intelligent Design cannot hide this fact.
The image from Pixabay by sbtlneet is used here under a CC0 Creative Commons license.
I have read some critical comments about Bill Nye the Science Guy. The comments essentially stated that Bill Nye is not a real scientist because he doesn’t have a Ph.D., just a B.S. in mechanical engineering. This is a common belief I find among people who have not pursued a scientific career. These people think that to be scientists, and think like scientists, you need decades of study and work in labs or in the field operating expensive pieces of equipment and researching some important things.
These beliefs are wrong. Not only is Bill Nye a true scientist, but also you can be one too even if you have not pursued a scientific career.
The only thing you need to do to be a scientist is to follow the scientific method when answering questions. And what questions am I talking about? They don’t have to be complicated questions regarding the inner workings of genes, the cure for a disease, how stars explode, or how to classify fossils. The questions can be very simple, but they have to be scientific. In fact that is the first step of the scientific method:
Step 1: Ask a scientific question.
Scientific questions are those that pertain to the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. Questions that cannot generate testable answers are not scientific questions.
Examples of scientific and non-scientific questions:
“Does God exist?” is not a scientific question because there is no way to test it, but “How many people believe God exists?” or “How has the belief in God affected society?” are scientific questions, because people can be polled and the effects of believing in a God can be evaluated.
“Is killing wrong?” is not a scientific question because it involves a value judgement that also often depends on the situation, but “How many people think killing is wrong and in which situations?” is a scientific question.
“Is this lake big?” is not a scientific question because terms such as “lake” or “big” mean different things to different people, but “What is the area (or volume) occupied by this body of water and how does it compare to others?” is a scientific question.
Other examples of scientific questions are: “Can plants grow under green light?”, “Do ice cubes melt slower in salt water?”, “Does the size of a gummy bear affect how fast it will melt in a microwave oven?”, etc.
Once you have asked a scientific question, you have to propose a possible answer to said question (a hypothesis). But before you proceed to the next step, you should try to check whether your question has been answered by someone else somewhere. Examine their methodology and their conclusions to see if you agree with them.
Step 2: Propose an answer (a hypothesis) to your question.
The key thing to remember here is that the hypothesis that you propose has to be falsifiable. This means that if your hypothesis is false, you have to be able to demonstrate that that indeed is the case. An example of a non-falsifiable hypothesis is:
Wood floats and steel sinks because wood has more “floatability” than steel. Here “flotability” is just a restatement of the very effect we are trying to explain.
A falsifiable hypothesis would be:
Steel sinks because it is denser than water and wood floats because it is less dense. Here density (weight divided by volume) is a quantity that can be measured and modified to evaluate the hypothesis.
Step 3: Devise a way to test these scientific hypotheses through observation or experiments.
The best experiments or observations are those that provide a yes or no answer. If there are several variables that can affect the results of your experiment, you have to control them before any meaningful results can be obtained. This is why scientists often use “controls” in their experiments. For example, if you are trying to figure out at what temperature a liquid will boil, you also have to be mindful of the pressure at which you are heating it and the content of other substances dissolved in the liquid. Water will boil at different temperatures on a mountain compared to sea level. Salt water will boil at a different temperature than fresh water.
Also be mindful of your biases! If you feel very strongly about the hypothesis that you are testing, you should probably ask someone else to perform the experiment or the observations for you to avoid experimenter or observer bias.
Step 4: Evaluate the results of your experiment or the observations you made and reach a conclusion.
Try to be razor sharp in your conclusion. The hypothesis is either true or false. Do not fall in love with a hypothesis. Unless there was a mistake in the measurements or observations, or new knowledge became available that would have affected your procedures, if a hypothesis proven false, it is false. Do not move the goalposts! This is what pseudoscientists do when their pet explanations are proven false over and over.
Most people who write about the scientific method stop at step 4, but in my opinion, one more step is required. This step is the most crucial and most difficult, and also the reason I consider Bill Nye to be more of a scientist than many scientists even if he doesn’t have a Ph.D.
Step 5: Being a scientist is not merely applying the scientific method a few times or applying it selectively to some things and not to others. Being a scientist means incorporating this method into your daily life, into the way you think, into the way you select which beliefs to hold, and in fact into your very world view.
You will be surprised to learn that quite a number of scientists (all with a Ph.D.) that apply the scientific method on a regular basis to their research at work are incapable of applying it to aspects of their personal lives or even their beliefs. I have met scientists who believe in creationism, astrology, bogus alternative therapies, and many other things that have been tested and disproven. And the irony is that many of the scientific principles that have been used to demonstrate that these things are false are the same principles that these scientists apply in their labs in their experiments! Such is the complexity of the human mind.
This is why I believe Mr. Nye is a real scientist, and why you can be one too. Now get out there and be a scientist!
Photo of Bill Nye photo by Paul Antico, SFU - University Communications, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
I once attended a presentation given by the Dalai Lama to an audience of scientists. In this presentation he relayed an anecdote of something that happened during the years when he trained to be a monk. He said that one of his teachers had stated that the moon shone with its own light. Sometime later, the Dalai Lama learned about the knowledge that the moon does not emit a light of its own, but rather that it reflects light from the sun. So he had to go back and correct his teacher. The Dalai Lama used this as a stepping stone to go on to suggest that our beliefs must be tempered by science. In other words, if we believe something and science produces solid evidence against it, then we must stop believing in it.
To many people this would sound presumptuous. Why should science be the ultimate arbiter of truth? Isn’t science sometimes wrong? The answer is, of course, that science can be wrong, but as it turns out that is its strength. The reason that science is the best method we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world that surrounds us is that, unlike other modalities of learning the truth, science can be wrong. Let me explain.
The above notion was put forward by the great philosopher of science Karl Popper. Popper was striving to find a way to tell science apart from other non-scientific disciplines, and he came up with a brilliant solution which he called the “criteria for demarcation”. Science makes testable claims. And because the claims of science can be tested, they can be proven to be wrong! This is also called the “falsifiability criterion”. While non-scientific disciplines produce theories that cannot be proven wrong and thus can never be tested or challenged, truly scientific disciplines propose theories that can be tested and unambiguously proven to be wrong if in fact they are.
As an example, consider the case of polywater. This was a form of water that scientists were able to create inside small capillary tubes. This form of water had very different properties from regular water, and the international scientific community got really excited about its potential physical significance and applications. This went on until someone demonstrated that polywater was an unusual form of water because it was contaminated: it was dirty water! Thus the theory that polywater was a unique form of water was abandoned because it was challenged and proven false. Many scientific theories have met this fate, but this happened because they were testable. They could be proven to be false.
In contrast consider Creationism. This discipline has been challenged and proven false many times. Its proponents, rather than concluding that creationism is false, have proceeded to change the theory and reformulate it is a new guise over and over. Creationism cannot be proven wrong because its proponents are not willing to stake the viability of the theory on specific testable claims. Therefore creationism is not a scientific discipline. On the other hand consider the theory of evolution. This theory has been put to test many times from many different directions, and it has survived those challenges. Today evolution has become a pillar of the biological sciences, and scientist have moved on from discussing whether evolution is true or not to applying the tenets of evolution to many areas of science that are producing discoveries that are making our lives better.
The above also highlights another quality of science: it is self-correcting. In the short run scientists may make mistakes and propose incorrect hypotheses, but these hypotheses will be challenged and, if they are false, they will be proven to be so.
Finally, I want to point out a real life practical application of the above knowledge that you can take away from having read this article. If you are ever witnessing a discussion where the arguments and counter arguments seem to go on forever and it is not clear who is right, just ask the following question: what evidence will convince you that you are wrong? If the parties involved in the discussion cannot unambiguously answer this question and commit themselves to changing their opinion based on whether such evidence is produced, then what you are witnessing is not a scientific discussion. This is not to say it is not an important discussion, but it does mean it will never be resolved based on evidence and facts.
The photograph of the Dalai Lama was taken by Christopher and is used under a Creative Commons license. The photograph of Karl Popper by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies is in the public domain.