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Could the methodology of a medieval scholar help us find a missing plane?

March 17, 2014

When asked to list my all-time heroes, the name of William of Ockham (or Occam) is never far from my lips. Born in the late 13th century, in the Surrey village of Ockham, this Franciscan philosopher, theologian and political writer, is generally considered to be one of the major figures in medieval scholarship.

In this regard, he ranks alongside the likes of his fellow theologians Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus in the pantheon of great pre-Renaissance thinkers. Despite the title he earned at Oxford University of Venerabilis Inceptor (‘Worthy Beginner’) it is therefore by his alternative title of Doctor Invincibilis (‘Unconquerable Doctor’) that he comes down to us. Of all his writings, and they are each worthy of separate study, it is for his principle of parsimony in explanation and theory-building that he is best known today. It is a principle that Fox Mulder refers to in an episode of the X-files and that Jodie Foster defers to in ‘Contact’. Indeed, in William Peter Blatty’s novel, Legion (on which ‘The Exorcist III’ is based), the lead character complains that he was not put on earth “to sell William of Occam door to door.” He needn’t have bothered. William of Ockham sells himself well enough without help, through the principle that is known as ‘Occam’s Razor.’

The Razor is perhaps most clearly defined in Encyclopedia Britannica’s Student edition, where it is taken as an admonishment to devise no more explanations than necessary for any given situation. Put another way, it advises that one should opt for explanations in terms of the fewest possible number of causes, factors or variables. The adults’ version of Encyclopedia Britannica puts it more elegantly, but perhaps less clearly, in these terms – ‘Pluritas non est ponenda sine necessitate’ (‘Plurality should not be posited without necessity’). As such, the principle can be interpreted as giving precedence to simplicity; of two competing theories, the simplest explanation of an entity is to be preferred. There are some higher truths, which may be known to us by experience or revelation, and which Ockham witnesses as necessary rather than contingent entities, to which we are not advised to apply the razor. This is a part of Ockham’s trenchant analysis which is often forgotten, but at least need not concern us when considering the theme of today’s article.

So how do modern-day analysts stand on the shoulders of this medieval giant? The best explanation is perhaps by way of example, and for this we need to travel to the Hong Kong racetrack and to the professional gamblers who devise sophisticated forecasting models of the outcomes of the races run at the Sha Tin and Happy Valley tracks. The basic methodology is to identify each individual factor that could possibly predict the outcome. And what do you do then? How do you decide what to include and what not? For the answer I asked a man who has conservatively made tens of millions of dollars at the track from this very approach. As we enjoyed the view from his Sydney penthouse, he summed it up in a sentence. “I apply Occam’s Razor”, he said, “it really is as simple as that!”

Now say that you have a missing aircraft, and the number of explanations are seeming to grow by the minute. What should we do? Apply Occam’s Razor, of course. And see what we get.





From → Forecasting, Puzzles

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