Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ockham's Razor

William of Ockham
The Razor

Ockham’s razor is the principle of parsimony or simplicity according to which the simpler theory is more likely to be true. Ockham did not invent this principle; it is found in Aristotle, Aquinas, and other philosophers Ockham read. Nor did he call the principle a “razor.” In fact, the first known use of the term “Occam’s razor” occurs in 1852 in the work of the British mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.

Although Ockham never even makes an argument for the validity of the principle, he uses it in many striking ways, and this is how it became associated with him. For some, the principle of simplicity implies that the world is maximally simple. Aquinas, for example, argues that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices. This interpretation of the principle is also suggested by its most popular formulation: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” Yet this is a problematic assertion.

We know today that nature is often redundant in both form and function. Although medieval philosophers were largely ignorant of evolutionary biology, they did affirm the existence of an omnipotent God, which is alone enough to render the assumption that the world is maximally simple suspicious. In any case, Ockham never makes this assumption and he does not use the popular formulation of the principle.

For Ockham, the principle of simplicity limits the multiplication of hypotheses not necessarily entities. Favouring the formulation “It is useless to do with more what can be done with less,” Ockham implies that theories are meant to do things, namely, explain and predict, and these things can be accomplished more effectively with fewer assumptions.

At one level, this is just common sense. Suppose your car suddenly stops running and your fuel gauge indicates an empty gas tank. It would be silly to hypothesize both that you are out of gas and that you are out of oil. You need only one hypothesis to explain what has happened.Some would object that the principle of simplicity cannot guarantee truth. The gas gauge on your car may be broken or the empty gas tank may be just one of several things wrong with the car. In response to this objection, one might point out that the principle of simplicity does not tell us which theory is true but only which theory is more likely to be true. Moreover, if there is some other sign of damage, such as a blinking oil gage, then there is a further fact to explain, warranting an additional hypothesis.
Although the razor seems like common sense in everyday situations, when used in science, it can have surprising and powerful effects. For example, in his classic exposition of theoretical physics, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking attributes the discovery of quantum mechanics to Ockham’s razor.

Nevertheless, not everyone approves of the razor. Ockham’s contemporary and fellow Franciscan Walter Chatton proposed an “anti-razor” in opposition to Ockham. He declares that if three things are not enough to verify an affirmative proposition about things, a fourth must be added, and so on. Others call Ockham’s razor a “principle of stinginess,” accusing it of quashing creativity and imagination. Still others complain that there is no objective way to determine which of two theories is simpler. Often a theory that is simpler in one way is more complicated in another way. All of these concerns and others make Ockham’s razor controversial.

At bottom, Ockham advocates simplicity in order to reduce the risk of error. Every hypothesis carries the possibility that it may be wrong. The more hypotheses you accept, the more you increase your risk. Ockham strove to avoid error at all times, even if it meant abandoning well-loved, traditional beliefs. This approach helped to earn him his reputation as destroyer of the medieval synthesis of faith and reason.

So when we look at the world with a modern days sceptical viewpoint, we must ask, is there a simpler hypothesis? When people maintain a belief they have seen a ghost it is right to apply Ockham's razor and ask, 'Is there a simpler explanation?'




I received an email this recently from a fellow sceptic that is far more knowledgeable and eloquent than I. However like the best of us he stumbled and I was fortunate enough to be the person he looked to for advice on a prickly subject area.

The word 'Deconstructionism' was mentioned and tied in with Scepticism, a very true but deliciously naughty little puzzle to throw at someone as Deconstructionism is not that widely recognized as associated with the modern sceptic's movement.

Put quite simply Deconstruction and it's verb Deconstructionism was sometimes used pejoratively to suggest nihilism and frivolous skepticism.

I could imagine it as being used against the Solipsists or in fact anyone that took Skepticism to it's most extreme, which any of us could do if we so wish, see: 'here is a hand' argument.

So deconstructionism as scepticism, true but only in the sense of questioning another branch of skepticism by belittling. I would not personally classify deconstructionism as scepticism purely on the basis of belittling, there are better ways to hammer the nail than resorting to cheap flaming tricks as found on many forum boards, including that of many sceptic sites.

In popular usage the term has come to mean a critical dismantling of tradition and traditional modes of thought.

Which is the way I feel the description of Deconstruction should stay, the ties to scepticism at best were tenuous and in the past, we are in a new age of Scepticism, I feel a better one,



Acupuncture - Point taken

Of course Acupuncture works, how many poorly porcupines have you seen?

Today's scepticle is all about the wonderful C.A.M. known as Acupuncture. There are various off shoots of this but for now I am going to discuss the main points and go from there.

Acupuncture chart from Hua Shou (fl. 1340s, Ming Dynasty). This image from Shi si jing fa hui (Expression of the Fourteen Meridians). (Tokyo : Suharaya Heisuke kanko, Kyoho gan 1716).The history of Acupuncture:It’s definitely not 3000 years old. The earliest Chinese medical texts, from the 3rd century BCE, do not mention it. Chinese scholar Paul Unschuld suspects the idea may have originated with the Greek Hippocrates of Cos and later spread to China.

We have the archaeological evidence of needles from that era — they are large; the technology for manufacturing thin steel needles appropriate for acupuncture didn’t exist until about 400 years ago. Acupuncture was tried off and on in Europe around about the 1600's. It was first tried in America in 1826 as a possible means of resuscitating drowning victims. They couldn’t get it to work and “gave up in disgust.” needles were simply inserted near the point of pain, no reference to Qi or Meridians were ever recorded.

Frenchman, Georges Soulie de Morant, was the first to use the term “meridian” and to equate qi with energy — in 1939.
It was Mao’s government that coined the term “traditional Chinese medicine” or TCM, however he did not use it himself because he did not believe it worked although he was not averse to allowing it's use during the “barefoot doctor” campaign in the 1960s as a cheap way of providing care to the masses.Present day:While the origins and early development of acupuncture remain murky, it is clear that today many people around the world believe acupuncture is an effective medical treatment for a vast variety of disorders. It is noted however that only 15% - 20% of Chinese prefer TCM to orthodox medicine and even this is because many people can not afford to pay for orthodox medical treatments. China does not have universal health coverage, even though it is a Communist country.

Acupuncture points:
The 'original' amount of acupuncture points were 360, this was entirely based up on the number of days in a year and certainly had nothing to do with medical anatomy. It is reported there are now over 2.000 acupuncture points covering the human body, so it must be like pinning the tail on the donkey with no possibility of losing. No matter where you stick that damn pin you are going to get an acupuncture point.

There are reportedly 12 meridian points. Now I first thought this correlates to the 12 months of the year, however after a little digging it actually correlates to the 12 rivers that flow through China. It is interesting to note that after decades of research no one has been able to document the existence of Qi, Meridians or acupuncture points.

Does it work:
Now when we say work we have to be very clear on the meaning of this, what works for one may not 'work' for someone else. When people say 'it works' when arguing for unproven treatments such as Acupuncture, they are committing what is known as a 'Pragmatic fallacy'. The pragmatic fallacy is committed when one argues that something is true because it works and where 'works' means something like "I'm satisfied with it," "I feel better," "I find it beneficial, meaningful, or significant," or "It explains things for me." What 'works' means here is vague and ambiguous. At the least, it means that one perceives some practical benefit in believing that it is true, despite the fact that the utility of a belief is independent of its truth-value. Testimonials regarding how well the treatment works may be heartfelt, but they can be dangerously misleading.
Another aspect to think about is which type of acupuncture do we refer to? There are various different Chinese systems, plus Japanese, Thai, Korean and Indian modalities, most of which have been invented over the last few decades: whole body or limited to the scalp, hand, ear, foot, or cheek and chin; deep or superficial; with electrified needles; with dermal pad electrodes and no skin penetration.

After thousands of randomised clinical trials acupuncture has shown nothing but a placebo effect at best, the pills you get from the doc go through rigorous testing, peer reviewed double blind testing, ongoing improvements, not fake histories, cures created by non medical practitioners under non regulated businesses practices that charge average £50 upwards per session. This is why pharmaceuticals are accepted in mainstream medical practices, they are actually put through the RCT's and only those that pass muster are allowed on sale.

Diverting attention from original symptoms to the sensation of needling, expectation, suggestion, mutual consensus and compliance demand, causality error, classic conditioning, reciprocal conditioning, operant conditioning, operator conditioning, reinforcement, group consensus, economic and emotional investment, social and political disaffection, social rewards for believing, variable course of disease, regression to the mean — there are many ways human psychology can fool us into thinking ineffective treatments are effective. Then there’s the fact that all placebos are not equal — an elaborate system involving lying down, relaxing, and spending time with a caring authority can be expected to produce a much greater placebo effect than simply taking a sugar pill.

Gate control theory of pain:

Gate control theory of pain was developed in the early 1960's, a full ten years before scientists were in to acupuncture. Canadian Ronald Melzack and Englishman Patrick wall jointly suggested certain nerve fibres, which conduct impulses from skin to more central junctions, also have the ability to close a so called 'gate'. When closed other impulses, perhaps associated with pain, struggle to reach the brain and are less likely to be recognized as pain, therefore shutting the 'gate' may be able to suppress major pain. Western acupuncturists jumped on this 'theory' by stating that the sensation caused by an acupuncture needle could 'shut the gate', unfortunately acupuncture's ability to exploit this theory remains unproven.

Is it science?

It is not a science or medical practice, it is a cultural practice which triggers the placebo effect and is placed currently squarely in the branch of medical sociology, not a hard science and not true science in the sense of proof it 'works' (see above). It is medical in the sense of it being practiced as medicine of folklore nature where pharmaceuticals are not available and I give full respect to these practices, I also agree in capitalised countries it is seen as C.A.M. however to classify it as a medical science is so wrong. Even eyewitness accounts only add to the multitude of other anecdotal evidence that does not stand up against double blind peer reviewed clinical trials. Although never perfect, the clinical trial allows us to get as close to the truth as we possibly can. In fact, it is important to remember that the clinical trial is so effective at minimizing bias that it is also a vital tool in researching conventional medicine.

One German pain trial showed real acupuncture reduced pain in about half the patients, the sham had the same effect and the no acupuncture considerably less success, which shows at best acupuncture works on placebo.

Here we slip in to medical ethics and decide whether we should allow acupuncture in mainstream medicine as a placebo? In other words does it matter the treatment is fake as long as the effect is real? Which begs the question should we expose acupuncture for what it really is or should we have a conspiracy of silence and allow people to gain the benefits of placebo?




Hi all,

as a kid and early adult I believed absolutely everything I was told, the ultimate believer and even though I was a massive Scooby Doo fan, scrappy doo being my fave, I was suckered in to all sorts, ouija boards, playing vinyl's in reverse, Tarot cards, rune stones and the X-Files capped it all for me.

Somehow in someway I got a wake up call, maybe it was the first wrestling Bio I read or Mitch Pileggi busting the wrestling illusion, shattering my child dreams that it's all true, I'm not sure but I became hardcore skeptical, to the point of madness, de-bunking everything in my path.

With maturity and increased research efforts I have matured a little and ride along a middling path, not dismissing things out of hand, yet not blindly believing, I follow a more Empirical pathway now, one of evidence base and yes science cant yet show everything, emotion is often thrown at me, although brain science is making in roads on that subject, I must follow an empirical base and yes I am a party pooper and intensely disliked by many but weight of evidence is my path.

I will be discussing all sorts of science, fringe science, pseudo-science and anything else that takes my fancy at the time. I do hope you enjoy my posts and do feel free to leave comments of a constructive nature, quality feed back is always appreciated,