Saturday, 19 November 2016

Occam's chainsaw

I loathe Michael Gove, but I have to say I am often grateful to him for clarifying what it is I do and don't believe. It isn't quite as simple as saying that 'Gove says it therefore it is wrong' (though that is an entirely reasonable starting point), it is more a question of the faux-reasonable and pseudo-intellectual style in which he pontificates provoking a stronger than usual reaction in me.

Take his recent performance as chair of the new commons 'Brexit' committee in which he "pressed experts on how the UK could achieve a “quickie divorce” with the EU regardless of the economic consequences, as he raised concerns that civil servants were over-complicating the process." Clearly proud of his erudition he invoked the image of Occam's razor as the tool to be used in this sort of debate. And something about the posiness of that reference really got me thinking.

Occam's razor (named after the English Franciscan friar of that name) is the scientific principle that simpler hypotheses are preferable to more complex ones, and that therefore scientists should seek to reduce rather than increase complexity in their hypotheses. Michael Gove, clearly delighted by this idea, sought to apply it to the Brexit process, and why not? Throughout the referendum campaign he and his colleagues sought again and again to reduce the complexity of the arguments involved until they essentially came down to one sentence: "Take back control." Control over what was never clearly defined, and neither were the mechanisms by which this amorphous control was to be regained, nor the other consequences that might ensue. Occam's razor, see! Everything else could be left as vague and unspecified assertions about immigration, £350 million a week, new trading opportunities, return to pounds and ounces... anything you want really.

The thing is, of course, that that is not remotely how William of Occam intended his philosophical razor to be used. The point for him was that simpler hypotheses are better because they are MORE EASILY TESTABLE. Gove and his cronies have used their version of the razor to achieve the exact opposite. By airily dismissing any discussion of any of the intrinsic complexities of the questions in hand they have come up with sweeping generalisations that almost by definition can never be tested. When will we know that, as a country, we have 'taken back control?' The only way literally to achieve that would be to remove ourselves from any and all trans-national agreements (the UN, NATO, the International Criminal Court, the Commonwealth...), banish any and all multi-national companies from the UK and replace parliament with a system of rolling plebiscites, with everything from tax to street-lighting decided by referendum.

Is that what the Brexiteers were arguing for? Who knows. Maybe some were, but there is no way of knowing, and that's the point. Once a political aim becomes so simplistic and general that it is completely untestable then you can read into it whatever you want.

And it isn't just in the Brexit debate that this distorted Occam's razor has been weilded. Trump' campaign was all about simplistic, generalised and utterly untestable statements like "Drain the swamp" or "Make America great again." Even the apparently testable ones like "Build the wall" and "Lock her up" were really there as rallying cries rather than statements of intended policy, as Trump's rowing-back since the election has made clear.

And there is a wider seam of this sort of stuff that goes way beyond election politics. I happened to come across a Facebook argument between my brother (a mathematician and scientist) and various climate change deniers. My brother's posts were long (sometimes overlong, to be fair), thorough, nuanced and well researched. What he was often met with was memes. I happened across the same phenomenon in the bizarre world of the flat-earthers and wrote about it here.

But what Michael Gove, with his faux-philosophical intervention on the subject, prompted me to realise was that occam's razor remains a very useful image in these circumstances. A razor is a tool one uses with circumspect precision to remove hairy irrelevances to reveal the living essence of the person (or issue). Once a razor has been applied properly (and carefully) one can see clearly who or what one is dealing with, and so come to sensible and robust conclusion about them. What Gove, Farage, Trump, the flat-earthers and their like are wielding is what I would like to call occam's chainsaw. By recklessly destroying all complexity, relevant or irrelevant, from an issue and reducing it to puddle of minced flesh suitable to be formed into a meme they remove any possibility of any further debate. How are you supposed to argue with "take back control" or "make America great again"?

However the converse of this is also clear. Just as one should never, under any circumstances, use a chainsaw to shave with, so one should immediately reject any response to a complex issue which reduces it to a meme.

Or, to express that as a meme:

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