Parsimony

One of the basic rules of today’s science is the law of parsimony. It states that when there are two possible explanations for a given observation, the one that requires the smallest amount of assumptions should be selected as the true one. In other words: a good scientist always strives for the most conservative and simple explanations of the facts.

It makes a lot of sense to avoid needless complexity.  Not only does that make it easier to understand things, it also helps in the communication with other scientists, journalists or your grandma. Overcomplicating things is as exhausting as it is boring and it makes it harder to judge where illusion ends and truth starts. But by sticking too closely to this law, scientists become a self-assuring collective that drift away into a meaningless void, possibly leading exactly to the opposite of what a scientist strives for.

The law of parsimony obliges the trained scientific mind to focus on a problem and avoid looking at its surroundings for as long as possible. If, for example, one wants to study the effects of a medicine on lung cancer, one will not include father-son-relationships or religious beliefs in an experimental design, because they are unlikely to be of influence. Fifty years ago, eating habits, air quality and smoking habits would possibly also not have been included in such research. They are very important factors now.

Parsimony goes hand in hand with the reductionist vision of cause and effect. It has resulted in the rising of different disciplines such as economy, medicine or ecology, where they were once one thing. Even within those fields, there are endless specializations. They distinguish from each other not only by the aspect of life they study, but also by the assumptions they take for granted. The ones they no longer see. What seems obvious to a person from discipline A, may be very far-fetched to a person from discipline B. The result here, is that communication between disciplines becomes harder and harder.

By always looking for the fewest amounts of assumptions, the parsimonious scientist creates a mental island for himself. Our society as a whole is stuck in a construct of assumptions that, by the fact that they are repeated in the classroom, feed the part of our minds in which they seem so clear and logical that they are no longer understood as assumptions. In economy for example: growth is the base. Wouldn’t it help the world if we assumed that dispersal and equality are important, even if we seldom observe them? In medicine: diseases have a physical cause. How about the complex role of the mind? In ecology: plant and animal communities behave according to mathematical models. Isn’t that a disrespectful view?

Parsimony invites us to keep building our understanding on the world we know already. I think science could serve life better if it allowed itself to dive into the unknown.

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