With an election just finished (more or less) and Thanksgiving gatherings (Zoom or otherwise) right around the corner, I thought I would share some useful ways to argue with your relatives.
These concepts are really from the field of philosophy, but we use them in determining natural science as well, and I think they might come in quite handy when you are having your annual “animated discussion” with Crazy Uncle Bill.
Just to set the stage, “razors” are philosophical rules of thumb that help eliminate, or shave off, unlikely causes for a phenomenon. Like all rules of thumb, they are not always right.
But often, they will help you cut away the distracting factoids so you can look at the important evidence or lack thereof.
The best-known razor is probably Occam’s Razor, which says that the simplest explanation is the most likely explanation. Keep it simple, stupid. As Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The simplest solution is not always the correct one, but when you want to prove or disprove something, start by testing the simplest explanation that includes all the assumptions. If that does not satisfy you, eliminate it. Then go to the next simplest and test that.
For example, looking for the reason that polar bears are white, is it more likely that they are white because: 1) they eat seals and fish which combine to create a chemical reaction in their body that turns their fur white; or 2) they have evolved to blend in with their glacial habitat?
The second reason is the simplest, so you would test that first, possibly comparing captive bears with wild bears. I don’t know what your family discussions entail, but use Occam’s Razor to simplify things. When your dad complains that he does not have the stamina of his youth, the reason is probably that he is getting older, not that someone is putting poison in his oatmeal.
Another useful rule of thumb is Hitchens’ Razor.
This basically says that anything that can be alleged without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. If I say, “All turtles begin life as frogs” but I do not give any proof of that “fact,” then you have the right to dismiss the claim without presenting any proof. The person making the claim has the responsibility to provide proof.
Hitchens’ Razor can be useful when Aunt Lucy accuses Aunt Betty of stealing Grandma’s diamond earrings. If there isn’t any proof, move on to a new subject.
Sagan’s Standard and Hume’s Razor are pretty closely related.
Sagan says that any extraordinary claim must be supported by extraordinary evidence. When I say, “Climate change is threatening to flood major cities within the next 50 years if nothing is done to stop it,” then I must also back my statement up by providing the extraordinary scientific evidence of the trends and patterns that have been recorded.
Hume said that the evidence provided for an extraordinary claim must be sufficiently powerful to account for the “miracle.” So, I couldn’t prove my statement about climate change by showing that the creek in my back pasture has flooded two years in a row – that very small explanation would be inadequate to explain such a large problem.
A T-shirt that says, “I got kidnapped by aliens and all I got was this lousy shirt” is not sufficient proof to back up your sister’s claim of intergalactic travel. A greenish glow would be more convincing; setting off a Geiger counter with her radioactive skin would be the kind of extraordinary proof most people would need to believe her unbelievable claim.
Holidays are difficult enough, especially this year with the added spice of COVID-19 and elections. It is easy to get exasperated with people who do not see things exactly as you do.
Rather than getting entangled in never-ending emotional discussions about politics or family history, let Occam, Hitchens, Sagan and Hume help you ground your battles in logic and truth. Take their advice and bring along evidence to support your own crazy hypotheses.
And politely, with love, extricate yourself from the illogical, unprovable ideas of others. And when the razors are not enough to save the conversation, just nod your head and smile (and have another piece of pie).
Kathryn Hunter is from McMinn County and holds a bachelor’s degree in Forest Resource Management from the University of Idaho and a Master of Forestry from Yale University. She has worked with the USDA Forest Service locally as well as living and working in natural resource management and protected area conservation in eight foreign countries.