Tag: Simplicity

How to Use Occam’s Razor Without Getting Cut

Occam’s razor is one of the most useful, (yet misunderstood,) models in your mental toolbox to solve problems more quickly and efficiently. Here’s how to use it.

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Occam’s razor (also known as the “law of parsimony”) is a problem-solving principle which serves as a useful mental model. A philosophical razor is a tool used to eliminate improbable options in a given situation. Occam’s is the best-known example.

Occam’s razor can be summarized as follows:

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

The Basics

In simpler language, Occam’s razor states that the simplest explanation is preferable to one that is more complex. Simple theories are easier to verify. Simple solutions are easier to execute.

In other words, we should avoid looking for excessively complex solutions to a problem, and focus on what works given the circumstances. Occam’s razor can be used in a wide range of situations, as a means of making rapid decisions and establishing truths without empirical evidence. It works best as a mental model for making initial conclusions before the full scope of information can be obtained.

Science and math offer interesting lessons that demonstrate the value of simplicity. For example, the principle of minimum energy supports Occam’s razor. This facet of the second law of thermodynamics states that wherever possible, the use of energy is minimized. Physicists use Occam’s razor in the knowledge that they can rely on everything to use the minimum energy necessary to function. A ball at the top of a hill will roll down in order to be at the point of minimum potential energy. The same principle is present in biology. If a person repeats the same action on a regular basis in response to the same cue and reward, it will become a habit as the corresponding neural pathway is formed. From then on, their brain will use less energy to complete the same action.

The History of Occam’s Razor

The concept of Occam’s razor is credited to William of Ockham, a 14th-century friar, philosopher, and theologian. While he did not coin the term, his characteristic way of making deductions inspired other writers to develop the heuristic. Indeed, the concept of Occam’s razor is an ancient one. Aristotle produced the oldest known statement of the concept, saying, “We may assume the superiority, other things being equal, of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.”

Robert Grosseteste expanded on Aristotle’s writing in the 1200s, declaring

That is better and more valuable which requires fewer, other circumstances being equal…. For if one thing were demonstrated from many and another thing from fewer equally known premises, clearly that is better which is from fewer because it makes us know quickly, just as a universal demonstration is better than particular because it produces knowledge from fewer premises. Similarly, in natural science, in moral science, and in metaphysics the best is that which needs no premises and the better that which needs the fewer, other circumstances being equal.

Nowadays, Occam’s razor is an established mental model which can form a useful part of a latticework of knowledge.

Mental Model Occam's Razor

Examples of the Use of Occam’s Razor

The Development of Scientific Theories

Occam’s razor is frequently used by scientists, in particular for theoretical matters. The simpler a hypothesis is, the more easily it can be proven or falsified. A complex explanation for a phenomenon involves many factors which can be difficult to test or lead to issues with the repeatability of an experiment. As a consequence, the simplest solution which is consistent with the existing data is preferred. However, it is common for new data to allow hypotheses to become more complex over time. Scientists choose to opt for the simplest solution as the current data permits, while remaining open to the possibility of future research allowing for greater complexity.

The version used by scientists can best be summarized as:

When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is better.

The use of Occam’s razor in science is also a matter of practicality. Obtaining funding for simpler hypotheses tends to be easier, as they are often cheaper to prove.

Albert Einstein referred to Occam’s razor when developing his theory of special relativity. He formulated his own version: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Or, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

The physicist Stephen Hawking advocates for Occam’s razor in A Brief History of Time:

We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals. It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.

Isaac Newton used Occam’s razor too when developing his theories. Newton stated: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” He sought to make his theories, including the three laws of motion, as simple as possible, with only the necessary minimum of underlying assumptions.

Medicine

Modern doctors use a version of Occam’s razor, stating that they should look for the fewest possible causes to explain their patient’s multiple symptoms, and give preference to the most likely causes. A doctor we know often repeats the aphorism that “common things are common.” Interns are instructed, “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” For example, a person displaying influenza-like symptoms during an epidemic would be considered more likely to be suffering from influenza than an alternative, rarer disease. Making minimal diagnoses reduces the risk of over-treating a patient, causing panic, or causing dangerous interactions between different treatments. This is of particular importance within the current medical model, where patients are likely to see numerous health specialists and communication between them can be poor.

Prison Abolition and Fair Punishment

Occam’s razor has long played a role in attitudes towards the punishment of crimes. In this context, it refers to the idea that people should be given the least punishment necessary for their crimes. This is to avoid the excessive penal practices which were popular in the past. For example, a 19th-century English convict could receive five years of hard labor for stealing a piece of food.

The concept of penal parsimony was pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism. He held that punishments should not cause more pain than they prevent. Life imprisonment for murder could be seen as justified in that it might prevent a great deal of potential pain, should the perpetrator offend again. On the other hand, long-term imprisonment of an impoverished person for stealing food causes substantial suffering without preventing any.

Bentham’s writings on the application of Occam’s razor to punishment led to the prison abolition movement and many modern ideas related to rehabilitation.

Exceptions and Issues

It is important to note that, like any mental model, Occam’s razor is not foolproof. Use it with care, lest you cut yourself. This is especially crucial when it comes to important or risky decisions. There are exceptions to any rule, and we should never blindly follow the results of applying a mental model which logic, experience, or empirical evidence contradict. When you hear hoofbeats behind you, in most cases you should think horses, not zebras—unless you are out on the African savannah.

Furthermore, simple is as simple does. A conclusion can’t rely just on its simplicity. It must be backed by empirical evidence. And when using Occam’s razor to make deductions, we must avoid falling prey to confirmation bias. In the case of the NASA moon landing conspiracy theory, for example, some people consider it simpler for the moon landing to have been faked, others for it to have been real. Lisa Randall best expressed the issues with the narrow application of Occam’s razor in her book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe:

Another concern about Occam’s Razor is just a matter of fact. The world is more complicated than any of us would have been likely to conceive. Some particles and properties don’t seem necessary to any physical processes that matter—at least according to what we’ve deduced so far. Yet they exist. Sometimes the simplest model just isn’t the correct one.

This is why it’s important to remember that opting for simpler explanations still requires work. They may be easier to falsify, but still require effort. And that the simpler explanation, although having a higher chance of being correct, is not always true.

Occam’s razor is not intended to be a substitute for critical thinking. It is merely a tool to help make that thinking more efficient. Harlan Coben has disputed many criticisms of Occam’s razor by stating that people fail to understand its exact purpose:

Most people oversimplify Occam’s razor to mean the simplest answer is usually correct. But the real meaning, what the Franciscan friar William of Ockham really wanted to emphasize, is that you shouldn’t complicate, that you shouldn’t “stack” a theory if a simpler explanation was at the ready. Pare it down. Prune the excess.

Remember, Occam’s razor is complemented by other mental models, including fundamental error distribution, Hanlon’s razor, confirmation bias, availability heuristic and hindsight bias. The nature of mental models is that they tend to all interlock and work best in conjunction.

Albert Einstein on Sifting the Essential from the Non-Essential

Why is it so hard to sift the essential from the inessential? Few things have more of an impact on your life and career than your ability to zero in on what matters most. And yet most of us spend time cluttering our minds with things that don’t matter, rather than focusing on the simplicity that does.

It can feel difficult to keep up. There is an ever-increasing amount of information coming at us. Occasionally we get motivated and try to reach inbox zero but the onslaught doesn’t stop and we are soon back to where we started from. Efforts like this are well-meaning but misplaced, focusing on more and more effort instead of addressing the most important tool in our toolbox: our mind.

A lot of people think that Albert Einstein’s greatest ability was his mathematical mind. It wasn’t. Granted it’s probably better than yours or mine, but in comparison to his impact on the world most people in the know consider his mathematical gifts average at best.

Einstein’s greatest skill was the ability to sift the essential from the inessential — to grasp simplicity when everyone else was lost in clutter.

John Wheeler points out in his short biographical memoir on Einstein that it wasn’t that he understood more about complicated things that made him impressive:

Many a man in the street thinks of Einstein as a man who could only make headway in his work by dint of pages of complicated mathematics; the truth is the direct opposite. As Hilbert put it, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Gottingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, despite that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” Time and again, in the photoelectric effect, in relativity, in gravitation, the amateur grasped the simple point that had eluded the expert.

While it’s tempting to think that Einstein was born with this skill, that would be a lie.  In fact, it was developed consciously as an adult. “I soon learned,” Einstein said, “to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.”

“We have a passion for keeping things simple.”

— Charlie Munger

Where did Einstein acquire this ability to sift the essential from the non-essential? For this we turn to his first job.

In the view of many, the position of clerk of the Swiss patent office was no proper job at all, but it was the best job available to anyone with (Einstein’s) unpromising university record. He served in the Bern office for seven years, from June 23, 1902 to July 6, 1909. Every morning he faced his quote of patent applications. Those were the days when a patent application had to be accompanied by a working model. Over and above the applications and the models was the boss, a kind man, a strict man, a wise man. He gave strict instructions: explain very briefly, if possible in a single sentence, why the device will work or why it won’t; why the application should be granted or why it should be denied.

Day after day Einstein had to distill the central lesson out of objects of the greatest variety that man has power to invent. Who knows a more marvelous way to acquire a sense of what physics is and how it works? It is no wonder that Einstein always delighted in the machinery of the physical world—from the action of a compass needle to the meandering of a river, and from the perversities of a gyroscope to the drive of Flettner’s rotor ship.

Who else but a patent clerk could have discovered the theory of relativity? “Who else,” Wheeler writes, “could have distilled this simple central point from all the clutter of electromagnetism than someone whose job it was over and over to extract simplicity out of complexity.”

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The biggest mistake that most of us make is that we try to consume more information. We do this because we feel like we’re missing something. While we can all learn and improve our understanding of something, the constant search for what we don’t have and what we’re missing is also the natural response of someone who doesn’t truly understand what matters and what doesn’t. To understand what I mean consider investors.

The worst investors I know are focused on every news article, blog, or commentary on the company they own. Glued to their screen they look for some esoteric detail that others have missed. And because they are looking, they will eventually find something. Our brain convinces them that all of that effort paid off and they overvalue the new information. In fact, the vast majority of that time (9,999/10,000) that new bit of information won’t matter at all but they’ve lost the forest for the tree. Overvalued insight means unwarranted confidence. You can see where this is going.

On the other hand, the best investors I know focus only on company press releases and company filings. They know the few variables that truly matter and focus on monitoring those.

Simple. Effective. And efficient.

Clearly not every email in our inbox is important, not every moving part in a project will matter equally to the outcome, and not every opinion in a meeting is equally valid. We only have so much time. Giving things equal attention is not only inefficient but also ineffective.

Time is a great example of an overlooked simplicity. Sure, we learn a little bit about time in school. First we learn how to tell time and later we learn about time in the context of dates and speed. As we age, birthdays mark the passing of time. And of course, we have to be somewhere at a certain time, for a date, a flight, a graduation. That’s about the extent most of us will think about time until it’s too late.

Only when we’re older will we think about how we lived, what we worked on and who we worked with, and what mattered. Time is the simplicity before us that we ignore preferring to think about something more complex.

The skills to better filter and process are within our grasp: (1) focus on understanding basic, timeless, general principles of the world and use them to help filter people, ideas and projects; (2) take time to think about what we’re trying to achieve and the 2-3 variables that will most help us get there; (3) remove the inessential clutter from our lives; (4) think backwards about what we want to avoid.

5 Design-Informed Approaches to Good Learning

John Maeda offers five design-informed approaches for learning.

  1. BASICS are the beginning.
  2. REPEAT yourself often.
  3. AVOID creating desperation.
  4. INSPIRE with examples.
  5. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

John Maeda is a graphic designer and computer scientist. His book, The Laws of Simplicity, proposes ten laws for simplifying complex systems in business and life. Think of it as simplicity 101.

Maeda has some interesting things to say on learning:

Learning occurs best when there is a desire to attain specific knowledge. Sometimes that need is edification, which is itself a noble goal. Although in the majority of cases, having some kind of palpable reward, whether a letter grade or a candy bar, is necessary to motivate most people. Whether there is an intrinsic motivation like pride or an extrinsic motivation like a free cruise to the Caribbean waiting at the very end, the journey one must take to reap the reward is better when made tolerable.

Maeda believes that the best motivator to learn is giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

1. Basics are the beginning

The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly.

This echoes the first habit of effective thinking, understand deeply.

Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in.

The easiest way to learn the basics is to teach them to yourself. Maeda tells this story to illustrate the point:

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

A quick way to figure out what basics you’re missing is the Feynman Technique.

2. Repeat yourself often. Repeat yourself often.

REPEAT-ing yourself can be embarrassing, especially if you are self-conscious-which most everyone is. But there’s no need to feel ashamed, because repetition works and everyone does it, including the US President and other leaders.

3. Avoid creating desperation

A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.

4. Inspire with examples

INSPIRATION is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward. Strong belief in someone, or else some greater power like God, helps to fuel belief in yourself and gives you direction.

5. NEVER forget to repeat yourself

forget to repeat yourself. Never Forget to repeat yourself. Never …