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Starts With A Bang

Occam’s razor: the forgotten key to science literacy

If you’ve found yourself befuddled by extraordinary scientific-sounding claims, you’re not alone. But this centuries-old lesson can help.
string theory e(8)
The difference between a Lie algebra based on the E(8) group (left) and the Standard Model (right). The Lie algebra that defines the Standard Model is mathematically a 12-dimensional entity; the E(8) group is fundamentally a 248-dimensional entity. There is a lot that has to go away to get back the Standard Model from String Theories as we know them; with fewer parameters and fewer assumptions, our presently understood Universe is much more simply described by the Standard Model and General Relativity than any other description.
Credit: Cjean42/Wikimedia Commons
Key Takeaways
  • Although it’s a philosophical principle that’s best known as “When all things are equal, the simplest explanation is usually the best,” Occam’s razor is actually the key to modern science.
  • If we accept the principle of science: that all natural phenomena have natural explanations, then the scientific theories and framework with the greatest predictive power should be our foundational starting point.
  • It’s not “simplicity” but rather “the fewest additional assumptions” that guide the way to a scientific worldview. Even if you’re not a scientist, here’s how to avoid being fooled by extraordinary claims without sufficient evidence.

Occam’s razor, attributed to a 14th century philosopher, is a scientist’s most important guiding principle.

William of Ockham stained glass
This photograph of the stained glass at All Saints Church in Ockham, England, depicts the 14th century friar, philosopher, and theologian William of Ockham. Although he is often paraphrased incorrectly, he did indeed famously state, “It is futile to do with more what can be done with less.”
Credit: public domain

It’s commonly, but inaccurately, paraphrased as, “The simplest explanation is usually best.”

UFO over norway
In 2009, this odd, spiral-shaped light show appeared over Norway, frightening many residents and leading to a large number of claims of a UFO sighting. The culprit turned out to be a Russian military missile, which failed upon launch.
Credit: Scanpix Norway/Reuters

But the actual principle isn’t about “simplicity,” but rather making the fewest number of unnecessary assumptions.

roman copy greek bronze aristotle
The earliest written sentiment that presents the concept of Occam’s razor was put forth by Aristotle, who (in translation) said, “We may assume the superiority, other things being equal, of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.”
Credit: Alvaro Marques Hijazo/Wikimedia Commons

It actually originated with Aristotle, who noted the superiority, other things being equal, of using fewer postulates and/or hypotheses.

smartest person in the world
Isaac Newton made tremendous advances, largely on his own, across many disciplines of physics and mathematics. He revolutionized gravitation, motion, optics, and co-invented calculus. There was no invocation, nor a need to invoke, anything other than the natural laws of physics for all observed phenomena.
Credit: Ulia Koltyrina / Adobe Stock

Isaac Newton famously affirmed this in writing hypotheses non fingo: I assume no unnecessary hypotheses.

supernova X-ray
An event like AT2018cow, now known as either FBOTs or Cow-like events, is thought to be the result of a breakout shock from a cocooned supernova. With five such events now discovered, the hunt is on to uncover precisely what causes them, as well as what makes them so unique. “New physics,” which some had theorized, is entirely unnecessary to explain this class of objects.
Credit: Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, China

Yet much of modern science, and modern science news, is focused on wholly unnecessary, ill-motivated new ideas.

Many entanglement-based quantum networks across the world, including networks extending into space, are being developed to leverage the spooky phenomena of quantum teleportation, quantum repeaters and networks, and other practical aspects of quantum entanglement. The quantum state is “cut-and-pasted” from one location to another, but cannot be cloned, copied, or “moved” without destroying the original state. In reality, no information is ever being exchanged faster than light.
Credit: S.A. Hamilton et al., 70th International Astronautical Congress, 2019

Although science beyond the known frontiers is captivating, most new findings have mundane explanations.

constraints dark energy omega matter lambda
Three different types of measurements, distant stars and galaxies, the large-scale structure of the Universe, and the fluctuations in the CMB, tell us the expansion history of the Universe and its composition. Constraints on the total matter content (normal+dark, x-axis) and dark energy density (y-axis) from three independent sources: supernovae, the CMB (cosmic microwave background) and BAO (which is a wiggly feature seen in the correlations of large-scale structure).
Credit: Supernova Cosmology Project, Amanullah et al., ApJ, 2010

What’s already known and established adequately accounts for practically the entire Universe.

standard model structure
On the right, the gauge bosons, which mediate the three fundamental quantum forces of our Universe, are illustrated. There is only one photon to mediate the electromagnetic force, there are three bosons mediating the weak force, and eight mediating the strong force. This suggests that the Standard Model is a combination of three groups: U(1), SU(2), and SU(3), whose interactions and particles combine to make up everything known in existence. With gravity thrown into the mix, there are a total of 26 fundamental constants required to explain our Universe, with four big questions still awaiting explanation.
Credit: Daniel Domingues/CERN

Already in 2023, many extraordinary claims can be shaved away by Occam’s razor.

cosmological coupling
The different samples of elliptical galaxies and the inferred value of “k” for the various galaxies sampled under the assumptions of the Farrah et al. (2023) group. While they find that k = 3, consistent with a cosmic coupling that affects the expanding Universe in the same way dark energy does, this result is not “99.98%” certain as the raw numbers might have you believe.
Credit: D. Farrah et al., ApJL, 2023

Exotic black hole couplings might explain dark energy.

Loeb metal spherules
Avi Loeb, immediately upon their recovery, began calling these metal spherules “fragments of interstellar meteorite 1,” or IM1 for short. There is no robust evidence indicating that these spherules have an extraterrestrial origin. Instead, substantial evidence now exists that these are Earth-contaminated particles that originated from within our own Solar System, and likely from the Earth itself.
Credit: Avi Loeb/Medium

Alien technology could be on the seafloor.

Falling metal cylinders
The equivalence principle holds that there should be no difference between a gravitational acceleration and an acceleration due to any other force in the Universe. Since one is dependent on the gravitational constant and the other is not, testing the equivalence principle, done most precisely by the MICROSCOPE satellite to 1 part in 10^15, is a way to constrain time variations in the gravitational constant. The equivalence principle, as originally formulated by Einstein, was the single idea that he referred to as his “happiest thought” in life.
Credit: APS/Carin Cain

The expanding Universe could be an illusion.

light path motion velocity acceleration
If you allow light to come from outside your environment to inside, you can gain information about the relative velocities and accelerations of the two reference frames. The fact that the laws of physics, the speed of light, and every other observable is independent of your reference frame is strong evidence against the need for an aether.
Credit: Nick Stroebel/Astronomy Notes

An aether could be permeating all of space.

JWST deep field vs hubble
A portion of a JWST deep-field image, shown with the Hubble observations as its counterpart. Within the JWST field are a significant number of objects not seen by Hubble, showcasing JWST’s ability to reveal what Hubble could not, thanks predominantly to its longer-wavelength capabilities.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Christina Williams (NSF’s NOIRLab), Sandro Tacchella (Cambridge), Michael Maseda (UW-Madison); Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI); Animation: E. Siegel

JWST has delivered cosmic surprises.

grand unified theory
The particle content of the hypothetical grand unified group SU(5), which contains the entirety of the Standard Model plus additional particles. In particular, there are a series of (necessarily superheavy) bosons, labeled “X” in this diagram, that contain both properties of quarks and leptons, together, and would cause the proton to be fundamentally unstable. Their absence, and the proton’s observed stability, provide strong evidence against the validity of this theory in a scientific sense.
Credit: Cjean42/Wikimedia Commons

Theories of everything remain popular.

heat map of UFO sightings in the USA
This map shows a color-coded “heat” indicator of the number of reported UFO sightings throughout the continental United States, with various cities and locations-of-interest noted. Overall, the number of sightings track very well with population density.
Credit: Esri, HERE, Garmin, USGS, EPA

Many UFO sightings remain unexplained.

ufo lights liverpool
Touted as UFO lights, this 2011 photograph over Liverpool does, in fact, document a series of lights in an oddly unnatural-appearing configuration, but this is by no means compelling evidence for aliens. In fact, it’s simply an image looking up at the lights of Radio City Tower, which does not constitute scientific evidence for UFOs.
Credit: dreese/Wikimedia Commons

But none of the evidence requires aliens, new physics, or overthrowing our current theories.

The Standard Model particles and their supersymmetric counterparts. Slightly under 50% of these particles have been discovered, and just over 50% have never shown a trace that they exist. Supersymmetry is an idea that hopes to improve on the Standard Model, but it has yet to achieve the all-important ‘step 3’ in the three steps for supplanting the prevailing scientific theory: having its new predictions borne out by experiment.
Credit: Claire David

What’s already scientifically established sufficiently explains practically everything.

This graph shows the 1550 supernovae that are a part of the Pantheon+ analysis, plotted as a function of magnitude versus redshift. The supernova data, for many decades now (ever since 1998), has pointed toward a Universe that expands in a particular fashion that requires something beyond matter, radiation, and/or spatial curvature: a new form of energy that drives the expansion, known as dark energy. The supernovae all fall along the line that our standard cosmological model predicts, with even the highest-redshift, most far-flung type Ia supernovae adhering to this simple relation.
Credit: D. Brout et al./Pantheon+, ApJ submitted, 2022

Mostly Mute Monday tells a scientific story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words.


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