When athletes with super-human strength turn out to be drug cheats, we’re shocked. When tycoons with unbelievable wealth turn out to be thieves, we’re shocked. When corporations producing spectacular results turn out to be frauds, we’re shocked.
Which is weird, because when the truth finally emerges, it’s always a much simpler explanation.
Ask yourself, what’s more likely;
a) that a previously unremarkable athlete suddenly appears from relative obscurity (and a life-threatening condition) to win one of the world’s hardest competitions, not just once but seven times in a row, or
b) something dodgy is going on?
When you compare the two possible explanations side by side, you realise that the first one depends on a great number of highly unlikely things (many of which have never happened before in human history) to be true. Whereas the second describes a simple phenomenon that happens all too often. If you had to put money on one of these explanations being true, surely the simplest one would be your safest bet.
That’s how William of Ockham saw things. 600 years ago he wrote that the more complicated an explanation it was, the less likely… and therefore in need of a lot more evidence. If that evidence was not there (and you couldn’t see it coming any time soon) then you’re better off going with the simplest explanation until some new information pops up.
Try it out. What’s the simplest explanation;
a) A psychic bends a spoon with his mind, or
b) A psychic bends a spoon with his thumb?
Logicians refer to this principle as ‘Ockham’s* Razor’ and although it doesn’t actually prove anything (highly unlikely things do actually happen… and more often than you might think) it’s a handy tool whenever you have to choose between ‘A dog ate my homework’ and ‘I didn’t do my homework’.
So maybe the next time an individual spectacularly out-performs the rest of the pack, or an investment radically outperforms the market or your cutlery gets bent, apply Ockham’s Razor to cut through the nonsense.
Because when something sounds too good to be… it usually is.
*It’s sometimes spelt ‘Occam’. Don’t ask.