Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Split decision

By Tom Toles


Brain wiring

Now I won't be making the case that my brain is wired better than yours, because it has always been my belief that the ability to think up cartoons involves a high degree of mental short-circuiting. But it seems to me that there are some basic dichotomies in the way people understand the world, and one of my ALL TIME FAVORITES is Occam's Razor. I don't know why it's called that, and I'm not even sure if I understand it properly, but I define the terms around here, so today it means what I'm about to say it means.

For those of us who can't remember EVERY single detail of what we read, it's a way of processing evidence. Basically Mr. Razor says that in assessing a complex pile of data, the simplest unifying explanation is presumed to have a higher probability of being right. For example, you can come up with a model that explains solar and planetary movement with the earth at the center of the universe, and THEY DID, but the heliocentric model just works better, so it gets the presumption.

Evolution is another one. The fossil, genetic and physiological evidence CAN be configured in ways that contradict evolution if you furrow your brow and clench your lips hard enough, but evolution is such a vastly more coherent way to unify the data that fixating on bits of outlying or incomplete data is just kinda peculiar. My contention here is that some brains naturally flow towards the coherent model of available evidence, and others are predisposed to seize on stray data and preconceptions to maintain fanciful worldviews. And where am I going with this? Climate-change evidence. Whichever way you're wired, you knew that. --Tom Toles



By Tom Toles  | May 17, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  DC, Middle East  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Hot and cold running argument
Next: Where's BP's winning strategy?

Other Syndicated Editorial Cartoons:


What if, as you say, RigelKent, unseen beings [and] imaginary "truths," are not imaginary nor unseen? Does that skew "correlation and causation?"

Posted by: quiensabe | May 20, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

What if, as you say, RigelKent, unseen beings [and] imaginary "truths," are not imaginary? Does that skew "correlation and causation?"

Posted by: quiensabe | May 20, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, arkee, for mentioning William of Ockham. "Ockham's Razor" is also known as the Principle of Parsimony. A simpler explanation is preferred over a more complex one.

Posted by: chevychase10 | May 18, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Kudos on your Occam's Razor piece. It is nice to have someone calling a spade a spade. The religious right may like building their castle on shifting sands (as every time one of their points gets trumped they suddenly decide that it wasn't important and move onto something else), but those of us who know and love science are not impresed by that. It would be nice if the people who focus on the Bible would remember that Genesis was created as part of a narrative laying out the history and moral code of ancient Israel. It was never intended even by God to be a modern scientific textbook.

As for Jerusalem: I think that both sides deserve a good, solid kick-in-the-butt. Even though I am Jewish, I still very much mean it when I call for BOTH sides to be kicked.

Posted by: ems57fcva | May 18, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

While Occam's Razor is commonly said to be "the simplest explanation is presumed correct", it is actually more correct to paraphrase it as "Thou shalt not create entities."
In other words, create your explanation based on facts, not on unseen beings, imaginary "truths", the ether, flogiston, bodily humors, etc.
Seems simple. Then all one has to do is understand the difference between correlation and causation and we'll get along fine.

Posted by: RigelKent | May 17, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Certain people have a complex of applying situational logic to some of the most complex issues. How some people can conjure up evidence in their minds proving to themselves the existence of manmade global warming when no actual scientific evidence exists, but can't admit life begins at conception where the science is irrefutable.

Posted by: taxcutsin12 | May 17, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Sir, hats off to you...your work is exceptional, it will be a pleasure and an honor to return for more...Thank you for your wit and common sense, it is indeed in too much a short supply in the general populace today.

Posted by: prezpeng | May 17, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Tom, The Razor in Occum's Razor is used to shave away the metaphysical concepts. Now it all makes sense, Right?

Posted by: bavery1 | May 17, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Last I checked, our Capitol is indeed divided.
And all this time I thought man was the center of the universe...

Posted by: bertzel | May 17, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Some positions are to get ready for a negotiated peace. Settlement could be chips as are other statements designed to get a better deal. Why not see that as the simplest reason for that position>

As for "Climate-change evidence" this is a classic case where people are right but need to go further with their thinking. Yes it is warmer, but it is not bad in every circumstance. Sort out the logical consequences first - then decide what to do.

It is like a thermostat. You can make your home warmer or colder, but you better know the season before you decide what you want to do.

What is the season of the Earth? Is it spring or fall?

How about thinking about that - too?

Posted by: GaryEMasters | May 17, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

There's an interesting relationship between your blog on Occam's razor and your sketchbook item. The blog explains, ala Occam, that in theoretical systems, the simplest explanation is to be preferred. Your sketch points out that in practical matters, redundancy can be preferable.

Posted by: Ulric2 | May 17, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

In accordance with the US Constitution the District could always be moved to Missouri or anywhere else as a matter of fact guess that would solve the problem.

Posted by: carbonhog | May 17, 2010 6:20 AM | Report abuse

Right on, as a scientist I have always admired William of Occam 1288-1349. He wrote many other things besides the Razor Principle and deserves to be remembered. On Jerusalem, the city need not be divided, but it must be shared. There is a difference. The Israeli right wing cannot comprehend this because of racism, but there are many of us in Israel who would like to see that happen. We demonstrate week after week to small avail.

Posted by: arkee | May 17, 2010 5:10 AM | Report abuse

Hoofbeats and zebras or some such thing...
7-11-16-5.... Preakness winning order.

It was a simple explanation and it was probably right.

Posted by: hudsonart | May 17, 2010 1:13 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company