Monday, June 30, 2008

Name that Fallacy – Occam’s razor “debunked”

I thought I’d probably start a semi-regular post, ripped off from the The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast, which I’ll name, Name that Fallacy. I say “probably”, and “semi”, as I’ve made such claims before and they’ve fizzed out. (See LAMEASS of the Month for example.) This has more potential than others as it’s lazier. I’ll provide a passage of text and invite readers to identify the fallacy. Preferably you’ll explain why it’s a fallacy and the particular fallacy you think it is.

This first one is from the aptly named Winston Wu (I’m not the first to make that connection I’d wager) , who frames himself as the “skeptic debunker There is much fallacious material on his website for me to choose from. I thought I’d start with this egregious example on his “debunking” of Occam’s Razor. He makes a few points about the razor, but the particular fallacy I want to concentrate on is in point 1. Bare in mind there is more than likely to be more than one spin on this (bets firmly hedged):

Argument # 3: The Occam’s Razor rule

Stated as: “When there are two competing explanations for an event, the simpler one is more likely.”

This argument is a principle that skeptics often misuse to try to force alternate explanations to paranormal ones, even if those explanations involve false accusations or do not fit the facts. Originally, it began as a principle in physics having to do with parsimony, but somehow got twisted into a mantra for invalidating paranormal claims...

1) First of all, Occam’s Razor, termed by 14th Century logician and friar William of Occam, refers to a concept that states that "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily." It was not intended to be used to evaluate claims of the paranormal as skeptics today use it for. As Phil Gibbs points out in “Physics FAQ”: (

“To begin with we used Occam's razor to separate theories which would predict the same result for all experiments. Now we are trying to choose between theories which make different predictions. This is not what Occam intended…

The principle of simplicity works as a heuristic rule-of-thumb but some people quote it as if it is an axiom of physics. It is not. It can work well in philosophy or particle physics, but less often so in cosmology or psychology, where things usually turn out to be more complicated than you ever expected...

The law of parsimony is no substitute for insight, logic and the scientific method. It should never be relied upon to make or defend a conclusion. As arbiters of correctness only logical consistency and empirical evidence are absolute.”

Even Isaac Newton didn’t use Occam’s Razor like the skeptics of today do. His version of it was “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” (see same Physics FAQ)

Can I suggest, before you have a crack – read my “skeptic” definition of Occam's Razor. You can then browse about the Fallacy List to give you an idea.

If you’re too lazy to click a link, here’s Carl Sagan’s definition from the Demon Haunted World (original emphasis):
Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
If you’re already a top gun skeptic, then reading that probably wasted your time, so sorry…

I’ll put up my answer in a week or so.

Ps. Don’t look any comments (assuming I get any…) until you’ve thought about it a bit.

Pps. A fallacy he isn't making is Appeal to Authority (even if he is citing Isaac Newton).