Darwin-L Message Log 5:30 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<5:30>From BOTCFNR@vm.uni-c.dk  Fri Jan  7 17:27:20 1994

Date: Sat, 08 Jan 94 00:28:26 DNT
From: Finn N Rasmussen <BOTCFNR@vm.uni-c.dk>
Subject: Langdon vs. Tuomistu, Brown and Occam's shaving foam
To: Darwin-L@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Why are some hypotheses preferred for others by the scientific
community? The answer is (or ought to be) quite simple:
because they are more parsimonious, i.e. they need the fewest
possible assumptions to explain the observations at hand.
Science has rather consistently adhered to this principle at
least as far back in time as the first written records of
science. The formulation of the principle is usually ascribed
to William, marginal barber in Occam c. 1350.
   Of course the most parsimonious theory will also be the
least fantastic, and unfortunately lay people will most often
prefer the most fantastic and entertaining hypothesis if they
have a choice. Even scientists may occasionally lose the grip
of Occam's razor and reach for the shaving foam instead. The
deep, nebulous mystery has a strong attraction. A cloudy
theory or model may also be more convenient than simple,
boring stringency. This was very evident in the polemics about
cladistic versus "evolutionary" classification in systematic
biology in the early sixties: the evolutionists accused the
cladists for being "simplistic".
   It occurs to me after following the aquatic ape controversy
in this list  that the "terrestrial ape theory" is vastly more
parsimonious than its aquatic competitor, as judged from the
arguments that has appeared in the list (I am a systematic
botanist and had no preconceived ideas of this particular
subject). I am amazed that Andrew Brown or anybody else could
arrive at the opposite conclusion.
   There is another - and much more dangerous - attractor in
some "unscientific" theories: the political analogy. The
church did not prefer the geocentric view of the world because
it was the most entertaining hypothesis, but because of the
centristic analogy between the universe and the human society,
in particular, the structure of the church. The Bolsheviks
discarded selectionism, not because "dialectic evolution" was
more fantastic, but because they liked the analogy between
dialectic materialism in development of societies and the
evolution of species. Isn't there a shot of this stuff in the
Aquatic Ape thinking too? I have not read Morgan's book, but
one gets the impression from the debate here that Morgan is to
some extent politically flavoured.
   Could Occam help in the Greenberg/Renfrew case? Wouldn't it
clarify the status of the ideas to simply tabulate the pro's
and cons?
              Finn N Rasmussen, Botanical Laboratory,
              University of Copenhagen, Denmark

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