Science - Page 25

- Teller
to English Franciscan friar William of Ockham ( 1285-1347 ), a philosopher , logician and theologian , Occam ’ s razor suggests that the simplest explanation is preferable . Einstein is attributed with a related aphorism : “ Everything should be made as simple as possible , but no simpler .” In scientific investigation , simplicity goes hand-in-hand with the scientific method as a common tool of the trade .
While the concept of simplicity in explanation is appealing , it is easy to overinterpret Occam ’ s razor to suggest that the simplest explanation is not just preferred but actually correct . 4 Unfortunately , this line of thinking leads directly to yet another cognitive bias – simplicity bias . Our brains are wired to favor explanations with alluring narratives that are easy to explain . Explanations that include ambiguity , a large number of complex details , or are hard to understand are more likely to be questioned or dismissed . As covered
4 Feldman J . The simplicity principle in perception and cognition . Wiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci . 2016 Sep ; 7 ( 5 ): 330-40 . doi : 10.1002 / wcs . 1406 . Epub 2016 Jul 29 . PMID : 27470193 ; PMCID : PMC5125387 . above , we have a limited cognitive capacity . Consequently , simplicity bias allows us to save energy by avoiding explanations that tax or exceed our cognitive capacity .
Magicians love to exploit simplicity bias . The most evident example where this arises is in effects in which a magician appears to be repeating something over and over again , such as in ambitious card routines . In this effect , a magician will typically show the audience a card , bury it in the deck , and then it will magically reappear at the top . The magician will repeat this process over and over again . While audience members appear to see the same thing happening each time , in reality the magician uses many different methods all throughout the routine , including a mix of one-way force decks , double lifts , passes , hold-outs , and other sleights and subtleties .
However , an audience member ’ s inclination to generate a simple explanation would favor explanations reliant upon just one of these methods rather than a combination of all of them . The observed data would fit the simplest explanation ( e . g ., a one-way force deck )
– right up until the point that the magician showed you a deck containing 52 different cards . Pigeon-holing the audience into a simple , but incorrect explanation provides a basis for fooling them .
In science , simplicity bias is prevalent . However , just because something is simple and pretty doesn ’ t make it right . For example , for decades one of the primary characteristics that differentiated cancer cells from healthy cells was their shape . Cancer cells look distorted . Just like with the ambitious card , the simplest explanation would be that they are all distorted because of a common underlying mechanism and that , accordingly , they should behave similarly . At some level of detail this is true – they all behave badly . However , as the scientific community has dug deeper into the molecular underpinnings of cancers , it has learned that every individual cancer cell ( billions of them ) may have their own aberrations that govern the details of their behavior influencing not only minute details of their shape , but also other characteristics or behaviors , such as how they respond to drugs and move from place to place .


At the core of every trick is a cold , cognitive experiment in perception .


- Teller

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Combating simplicity bias and inappropriate reliance on Occam ’ s Razor starts with recognizing how ingrained it is in our thought processes . Quantitative measures ( e . g ., the Akaike information criterion ) can be used to compare models with respect to both how well they fit the data and how complicated they are . A few other tips – when trying to develop an understanding – challenge the thing that seems like the ‘ prettiest ’ explanation . Lastly , if you find yourself stuck in binary thinking – where there are exactly two explanations – call it out and ask why there are only two explanations . Also ask if parts of each of those explanations may be correct . One other excellent resource for combating simplicity bias is the book Thinking , Fast and Slow by Danial Kahneman .