While Occam’s razor is a useful tool that screens for simplicity, there is no guarantee that because a theory is simpler, it is more accurate. The fact that the explanation is simple is not enough to prove that it is right: there must be more corroborating evidence.1 Moreover, using Occam’s razor to reject complex ideas and focus only on more simple ones can be said to be preventative of critical thinking and innovation.
Additionally, while Occam’s razor might point us to the best explanation if we have two potential theories that explain the same results, we don’t often find ourselves with two theories that predict identical results. It is likely that the theories would differ in what they are trying to explain, which means it could be difficult to judge whether one is truly simpler than the other, or just different.14
Simplicity might also hamper scientific progress. Often, new theories seem incredulous when they are first iterated because they are so far from current belief systems. People originally thought that the Earth was flat because that was what could be inferred from observation; it was the simplest answer. However, more complex understandings of the world, such as solar or lunar eclipses, suggested that the Earth must be round. For scientific paradigm shifts to occur, we actually need outlandish, creative theories that displace pervading understandings.
Occam’s razor in the Courthouse
Occam’s razor is a useful tool for defense tactics, as well as determining punishment sentences.
Criminal-defense attorney Scott Greenfield suggests that the best way to win a case is through the KISS principle: Keep it Simple, Stupid. This principle is similar to Occam’s razor. When a witness is being questioned, they can answer either by contesting, explaining or admitting to what the defense is claiming. Greenfield suggests that the best tactic is to accept the facts and keep the case as simple as possible, as when people try to ‘explain’ or ‘contest’ that they find themselves making the case more complicated than necessary and diminishing their credibility.15 As Greenfield says, “the more things you must contest and the more explanations you must provide in order to mount a defense, the more likely it is that you will be convicted.”15
Occam’s razor is also a rule-of-thumb attitude for determining punishment in the judicial system. The concept of penal parsimony, which suggests that punishment that is more severe than necessary is ethically unjustifiable, functions in a similar way. The simpler sentence – just like the simpler explanation is favored by Occam’s razor – is thought to be the best one. Penal parsimony was a concept first introduced by Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century philosopher and legal reformer, who specifically mentioned Occam’s razor in his writings. The phenomenon and his work helped lead to the prison abolition movement, which seeks to reduce prison sentences.1
Occam’s razor in Patient Care
Doctors can adhere to Occam’s razor when treating their patients. Within the medical field, the heuristic suggests that doctors should look for the fewest possible number of causes to explain a patient’s symptoms. This is known as diagnostic parsimony and can reduce the chance that a practitioner over-treats their patients. This will limit unnecessary prescriptions and can help reduce a patient’s anxiety by making their situation appear more manageable.1
However, other professionals in the medical field would point to Hickam’s dictum to contradict Occam’s razor. Hickam’s dictum is the idea that “patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please.”16 Statistically, it has been found that patients are actually more likely to have multiple related diseases than have one source explain all their symptoms.17 Occam’s razor might therefore make doctors over-simplify a medical problem and not treat it as required.