Why does everything have to be so complicated?
Danielle: I heard they found evidence on Vic.
Dutch: Yeah. Maybe a little too much.
Danielle: What do you mean?
Dutch: You ever hear of Occam’s razor? The simplest answer is usually the right one? Good. Now apply that to the Lemansky case. Now all this evidence is pointing to Vic. Occam’s razor would suggest he’s guilty. Walter Chatton a contemporary of Occam’s. Disputed the razor. Coined his own anti-razor.
Danielle: What’s that?
Dutch: Chatton believed that the world was too complex. Too many variables to assume that the simplest answer was always the correct one.
From “Baptism by Fire,” the second episode of season 6 of The Shield.
I haven’t watched The Shield in years, but this exchange has haunted my dreams ever since. The world is indeed a complicated place, and most complex phenomena have complicated explanations, but, more often than not, the simplest hypothesis is the best. Why are so many of us tempted to believe otherwise, like Dutch here?
Occam’s Razor is the idea that the simpler hypothesis is often the better hypothesis. This preference for simpler hypotheses underlies the scientific method and most of the thinking that has allowed the human species to develop its current level of science, technology, knowledge and economic development. Occam’s Razor was not actually invented by William of Ockham, with its origins being traced back as far as Aristotle – or further – and with various philosophers between Aristotle and Ockham having formulated similar “laws.” So the idea of the simpler hypothesis being better is actually extremely old and quite common, and it’s an idea that has held up over time.
We need to be clear, though, that Occam’s Razor is not really the idea that the simplest explanation is likely the correct explanation, but rather that the simplest hypothesis is likely the correct hypothesis. It is this confusion between a hypothesis and an explanation that created the notion of the anti-Razor and which fuels Dutch’s confusion in the quote above. Dutch uses this confusion to suggest that Vic is being framed.1
Here is the anti-Razor, in all its glorious awkwardness:
Whenever an affirmative proposition is apt to be verified for actually existing things, if two things, howsoever they are present according to arrangement and duration, cannot suffice for the verification of the proposition while another thing is lacking, then one must posit that other thing.
This has been interpreted as ‘more complicated explanations are required to explain complex phenomena,’ but that isn’t really a refutation of Occam’s Razor. That’s because a hypothesis is just a guess. It’s a guess that needs to be tested. Only when that hypothesis is tested can we come up with explanations, which are theories. Occam’s Razor and its variations suggest that the simpler the hypothesis, the better and this has been borne out by human experience for a few basic reasons:
- It’s way, way easier to disprove (or “falsify”) a simple hypothesis than a complex one, meaning that simple hypotheses are easier to establish as true – a complex explanation can be built off of numerous simple, testable hypotheses, but the hypotheses underlying that explanation need to be simple so that they can be testable.
- Complex hypotheses can be formulated about any phenomena and, through so-called “saving hypotheses”,2 can be forever altered so that they can never be disproved. Favouring the simplest hypothesis a la Occam’s Razor eliminates the need for complex hypotheses which can never actually be proven. (The Wikipedia article on Occam’s Razor uses Leprechauns to illustrate this point, but I prefer Gremlins. Any theory as to how the world operates can include Gremlins manipulating objects as part of an explanation about the things that happen in the world. But Gremlins do not add anything to any theory of what happens – we don’t need Gremlins to explain car accidents, for example – and just muddle the ensuing explanation.)
We get confused between hypotheses and the theories which result. Scientific theories can be (often are) enormously complex, but they are arrived at by testing simple hypotheses over and over again. This confusion causes all sorts of issues in terms of how we think about the world.
Conspiracy Theories and Occam’s Razor
Conspiracy Theories are not actual theories about the world, but rather extraordinarily complicated hypotheses that cannot be tested. When someone tries to test a conspiracy theory and demonstrates one or more false assumptions, the conspiracy theorist uses the saving hypothesis to keep the theory alive.
Let’s take the JFK conspiracy theory around the magic bullet, for example. According to Oliver Stone, the sources for his movie and numerous other authors, in order for Oswald to have killed Kennedy, the bullet he shot would have had to go through Kennedy and then turn 90 degrees in midair in order to land in Connally’s body. This is presented as one of the crucial pieces of evidence that Oswald either didn’t do it or couldn’t have done it alone. It is an untestable hypothesis by design, because its absurdity is supposed to lead you to conclude there was a second shooter.
The problem is that Stone et al. are working off the wrong Lincoln. That is to say, their deliberately stupid hypothesis is based on the seating layout of a normal Lincoln rather than the modified Lincoln JFK used which is sitting in his presidential museum. Connally was not sitting directly in front of JFK but was actually sitting to his front-left, so the bullet’s path makes complete physical sense. If I point this out to a dedicated believer of conspiracy theories, and they don’t tell me I’m making it up, they’ll then abandon the magic bullet argument and point out the saving hypothesis – again unnecessarily complicated though not as absurd – that Kennedy’s head went “back and to the left” indicating a shot from The Grassy Knoll. When I then point out that Kennedy’s head goes down first in the Zapruder film – watch the film, it does – prior to going “back and to the left,” which is consistent with the simplest hypothesis, they will then move to a new saving hypothesis that is still consistent with their preferred explanation that someone was on The Grassy Knoll. And so on ad infinitum. The simplest hypothesis is that Kennedy was indeed in his modified Lincoln, which is the car that was used to drive him around and which is on display for the public to view at this museum, when Oswald shot him. There is no need for a second shooter. (Also, it’s worth noting that conspiracists are working backwards here: from the conclusion that there was a second shooter to fit the evidence. That’s another problem but not the one I want to focus on.)
Conspiracists, like most of us, confuse the hypothesis – the thing to be proven: who shot Kennedy – with the explanation – the proof of the hypothesis: Oswald shot a bullet directly through Kennedy and into Connally. To most of us, the hypothesis is the explanation; it’s not something to be tested, but rather something to be believed because it jibes with our beliefs. So why is it that we prefer complicated explanations? Why would we rather believe that there were two shooters who killed Kennedy instead of the one assassin who was caught after shooting a police officer and whose murder weapon was recovered with his prints on it? (Not to mention, a picture of him holding the rifle in his backyard was also recovered.)
Complexity and The Just World Fallacy
We believe that hypotheses should be complicated because the world appears more complicated to us than it did when we were kids. It appears this way in part because we secretly believe the world is or should be fair. We believe that there are powers at work that are keeping the world from being fair. Since this disconnect isn’t readily apparent to us, we need to develop complex hypotheses to demonstrate that powers are indeed keeping the world from being the fair place it should be.
Kennedy’s death was shocking to lots of people – even those who didn’t like him. So, instead of accepting the simplest and most reasonable hypothesis – Oswald, a failed Marine, shot Kennedy from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository, on his own, with the rifle he owned, which there is a picture of – and working out a reasonable explanation as to why Oswald shot Kennedy, and how he did it, numerous people began by rejecting that hypothesis – usually because of some faulty piece of evidence, such as Connally’s seat location, or believing that Kennedy’s head went “back and to the left” before it went down, or what have you – and creating an endless number of bizarre, new hypotheses that led to even more bizarre explanations. (If you dive down into the rabbit hole of the JFK conspiracy, you will get some really insane stuff, like “The man with the umbrella did it.” But for a more current example: Someone once suggested one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre was really a missile projecting holograms around it.) These new hypotheses could not be disproved because The Government wouldn’t reveal the true facts of the case but really they cannot be disproved because they are unfalsifiable.
The reason that the idea of Oswald as a patsy – or Oswald as part of a much greater conspiracy – is appealing is because it lessens the shock of the Kennedy assassination; it lessens the absurdity of the most powerful man in the world being killed by a failed, mentally unstable Marine who couldn’t do anything right. In order to maintain our beliefs about the nature of the world, we come up with implausible explanations as to how something could have happened that threatened our beliefs. In this case, Oswald killing Kennedy is a reminder of our own mortality – no one is safe – and, is a further reminder to fans of Kennedy that life is not fair. Occam’s Razor tells us that blaming the Mob, or the FBI, or the Secret Service, or the Russians, or the Pro-Castro Cubans, or the Anti-Castro Cubans, for Kennedy’s death doesn’t add to the explanation; the hypothesis that Oswald killed Kennedy doesn’t need any of that to be provable – it is provable on its own. The evidence is, in fact, one of the clearest cases of guilt in the history of American murder cases. But the very idea of the lone gunman besting the Secret Service and the President offends us at a primal level, at the level where we believe the world is fair.
The same is true for far more mundane conspiracies, such as the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy. Shakespeare’s talent is awe-inspiring. The idea that one man wrote all or the vast majority of his numerous plays seems impossible. It’s not fair. If Shakespeare did indeed write (or co-write) every single play attributed to him, what can I ever hope to accomplish? I can’t even write one play. He must have had help. Or he must not exist and the plays were written by multiple people. Etc.
We believe the world is fair. But it sure doesn’t look or feel fair most of the time, because it’s not fair. But belief is usually more powerful than reality. So we have to come up with extraordinarily complex and absurd explanations to justify our belief, to show why it currently isn’t fair – the powers that be don’t want us to benefit from the just world, so they go to extraordinary (impossible) lengths to prevent us from living in our just world. Overly complicated “theories” that cannot be falsified, such as conspiracy theories, allow us to main the false belief in a just world when all the evidence we see shows the world is inherently not fair.
- If I remember, Vic is actually being framed in this episode, for like the first time ever. But that’s irrelevant because The Shield tells us we’re not working in reality in the very first episode of its first season. ↩
- A ‘saving hypothesis’ is a reformulation of a hypothesis when someone has pointed out the obvious flaw in your earlier hypothesis. ↩