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home : opinion : opinion
June 20, 2018

6/14/2018 7:00:00 AM
Hints from the South
William of Occam
By Robert Maynard
Telegram Columnist

I would suspect that most of you are familiar with William of Occam. More than likely you have never had it presented to you in this fashion. Remember in the olden days, before sir names were popular, people were often identified by the city they came from. For instance, I might be known as Robert of Jackson.

The term Occam's razor did not appear in science until a few centuries after William passed away. William was born in 1287 and died in 1347. He was an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian. He was well known for his theory which would become known as Occam's razor.

Occam's razor has been explained in an endless combination of words which basically reach the same conclusion. Here are some of my favorites. "It is vain to do with more, what can be done with fewer" and "When faced with two competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the answer that makes the fewest assumptions" and "A plurality is not to be posited where without necessity" and "whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities."

Parsimony means sparseness and is also known as the rule of simplicity. This is considered a strong version of Occam's razor. A variation used in medicine is known as the "Zebra": a doctor should reject an exotic diagnosis when a more commonplace explanation is more likely. Also explained as "When you hear hoof beats, think of horses, not zebras."

In one study of Occam's razor, 32 published papers that included 97 comparisons of economic forecasts, from simple to complex. None of the papers proved that more complex theories improved accuracy. In fact, the more complex the study was, inaccuracy increased by up to 27 percent.

In other words, as my Dad used to often say, "Keep it simple, stupid."

God bless you all -- RHM

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