Applying The Principle Of Ockham's Razor

By Bjarne Dedenroth


My grandfather used to say: “Half of what they put in the media is a lie. The other half, I completely disagree with.”

Even if you’re not like my grandfather, you may see value in applying a scientific principle often referred to as Ockham’s Razor stemming from a now relatively old English gentleman, a scholastic philosoper; inspiring a much later writer to coin the term “Ockham’s Razor”. Although William of Ockham mentioned the principle frequently and employed it meticulously, it was, as is often the case,  a principle that was invoked earlier, in this case by Durand de Saint-Pourçain, a French Dominican theologian and philosopher. You can almost bet your sweet patootie that if everything were recorded in the great, big book of history, then it’s not entirely unlikely that you could trace it back even further. On that same note, it could easily be argued that nothing has ever been invented, but rather observed and subsequently framed and articulated.

William of Ockham was born somewhere between 1285 and 1288. Historians are still arguing about this; and presumably he died around 1347 to 1349. Historians are still arguing about that as well, just in case you were wondering what historians really do for a living!

The principle of Ockham’s Razor is by some referred to as “law of economy” or “law of parsimony”. In this context, it is not necessarily referring to micro- or macroeconomics, but rather the principle of applying as little force as possible, yet still achieve the results desired. Parsimony, likewise, is referring to minimalism or being extremely frugal in applying effort. For our purpose, an even better way of describing the principle of Ockham’s Razor could be that it is the idea that, when trying to deduce a theory or the truth from something (e.g. the news… any news), getting unnecessary information out of the way is the quickest and safest way to the objective truth. I can almost hear you thinking: “So, all we have to do is to get rid of 99% of what is presented in the media?” Oui, mon ami, but which 99%?

While we ponder on this question, let’s turn our attention to what Man has dreamed of for what appears to be an eternity. Man once dreamed – Man dreams a lot!! – that he could fly like a bird. This was not possible back in the days of William of Ockham during the 13th or 14th century. I know this because we still cannot fly like a bird! We may be able to buy a ticket and get onto one of those machines called an airplane, or even a helicopter – some of us lucky chaps even own one ourselves – but is it flying like a bird… any bird that you know of? I don’t know about you, but when I fly, I usually don’t use my two arms to flap my wings about, but rather I fold my hands together and pray; pray that this damn metal monster doesn’t fall down… at least not until after I have had my free drink!

To answer the question of what 99% is unnecessary information, let’s turn to my granddad for a minute. You see, he was the kind of man who insisted on reading his newspapers in the least amount of time in order to maximize the time spent on having fun. Who knows, my granddad may be able to inspire you as he did me. What he did was to always buy the newspapers on the day of publication, but he never read them on that day. Typically, he would save them for several days before he proudly marched out to his private office with a stack of newspapers under his left arm, often leaving the door open, much to the dismay of my grandmother.

One day, I recall him sitting there, as usual with his newspaper in his hands, when suddenly the sound of a firecracker, a BIG firecracker, went off. He quickly raised his head from the newspaper and gestured to me, by putting his pointing finger in front of his mouth, that I was to keep quiet, but it was too late. From the kitchen, my grandmother yelled at him: “If you insist on music while you are “studying”, could you please have the decency to close the damn door!!” Now, both granddad and I were cracking up for real!

At the time, I doubt my granddad knew it – and he most likely didn’t care – that he was in fact applying the above-mentioned scientific principle of Ockham’s Razor. I observed him do it consistently and conscientiously throughout his life and have now framed it and articulated it for you, but I never invented it. No one ever did, it was always there to be applied!

Here’s how you can apply it: Try, for instance, to read or watch the news or sports (e.g. the Olympics) with a 3-4 days (or weeks) delay, and you’ll quickly realize the value of this principle in that you are bound to increase your effectiveness dramatically, see things clearer, and not worry so much. With or without music, my granddad was a genius!