Razors – Weapons of Intellectual Self Defense in the Age of Bullshit

Have you ever been in an argument with someone who laid on the bullshit so thick you couldn’t cut through it? Well Bullshido’s here to help.

This is the first in a series of articles we are putting together to explain the basics and the advanced techniques for Self Defense Against Bullshit.

Our regular readers and Forums members have been employing many of these in their own battles against BS for over fifteen years now. But if you’re a new reader, or just interested in avoiding being someone’s mark/stooge/sucker/voter, crack your brain-knuckles and prepare for us to sharpen your shovel so well you can shave with it.

And as a bonus, we’ve included memes you can whip out next time you’re arguing with an idiot.

Let’s begin:

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor, in meme.

Occam’s Razor is the most commonly used of these, and that’s where we’ll start. You know it, you love it, you’ve sliced through so many bullshit arguments with it that Gillette’s suing you for unfair trade practices.

But do you really understand Occam’s Razor correctly? Maybe not.

William of Ockham lived in the 14th century, and in the original Latin, he stated:

“Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.”

Which translates into “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Or in other words, try to avoid pursuing over-complicated solutions to problems.

William of Ockham
William of Ockham… or Occam… whatever. It doesn’t really matter.

But like the spelling of the man’s name, the rest of the world just decided to interpret his ideas however the hell they wanted. So whether or not it’s technically correct, in practice it’s better this way.

The razor as we use it now, made its way out of academia into the public sphere in large part by Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking best seller “A Brief History of Time”. He references it here:

We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it.  However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals.  It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”

The take-away is that the simplest explanation isn’t always right, but over-complicated, convoluted explanations tend to be bullshit. And like the fact that the technical explanation behind William of Ockham’s thought was a little more nuanced, Occam’s Razor is simple and to the… erm… point.

Hitchens’ Razor

Hitchens’ Razor

Christoper Hitchens was God’s gift to rational thought. (Yes, that was a joke, and yes, pointing it out ruins said joke.) Noted for his scholarly insight, masterful command of the English language, and acerbic wit, it was a given that someone would name an epistemological razor after him; right along with the slightly less scholarly term “Hitch-slap” in which his gloriously condescending, melodious eloquence was employed to slap the intellectual dogshit out of his debate opponents:

The essence of Hitchens’ Razor is simple: put up, or shut up. Insisting that something is true just isn’t good enough for a person who thinks critically and rationally. Or in other words, if you don’t bring Lady Evidence with you to the ball, you’re going to be dancing with yourself…

Billy Idol performing in Hamburg, Germany
Yes, we, like Billy Idol, are referring to Masturbation.

Hitch died of cancer in 2011, His voice at this particular moment in history, when facts are under unrelenting assault, is sorely missed.

Popper’s Razor (Falsifiability Principle)

Popper's Razor - Falsifiability Principle
Popper’s Razor

Karl Popper was a philosopher, not a scientist, but his life’s work was to reinforce the intellectual foundation of Science itself. After earning his doctorate in Psychology, he became concerned with the less-than-empirical ideas in the field and the degree to which certain methods of psychoanalysis purported to explain nearly every aspect of human behavior, but could not easily be refuted in their assessments: psychobabble, basically.

He took up the challenge of drawing a line in the sand between what was scientifically valid, and what was outside of the realm of science. And the line that he drew was simple, elegant, and precise… like a… you guessed it: razor. (Although if you’re using a razor to draw lines in sand, the cabana boy probably spiked your fruity umbrella drink.)

“The criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.”.

-Karl Popper

Simply put: in order for something to be considered Scientifically valid, it has to be falsifiable. Or in other words, if it can’t be proven wrong, it’s not scientific.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell explained the same basic idea with a uncannily British analogy of a small teapot floating in space: you can assert that it exists all you want, but given that it’s nearly impossible to disprove that a teapot is floating somewhere in the vastness of space, any rational person shouldn’t care.

Russel's Teapot
I’m a little BULLSHIT, short and stout

An even further dumbed-down version has been employed by the author of this very piece to get the point across, to those less likely to enjoy an episode of Downton Abbey as much as an incident of trailer park domestic violence: you can claim you’re being followed by ghost ninjas, but since your claim is impossible to disprove, I’m going to just assume you’re off your fucking meds and go about the rest of my day. The sad thing is that those specific words had to be put together into a sentence for another Human being.

The usefulness of Popper’s Razor cannot be understated when trying to separate actual Science from Pseudoscience, especially of the insidious, Deepak “Quantum Gibberish” Chopra variety, which makes all sorts of wild, impossible-to-disprove claims.

Hanlon’s Razor

This razor is a bit of an aside to the regretfully necessary intellectual violence of slicing up bullshit. But every now and then we need to be reminded that not everyone in an argument is deliberately being an asshole; sometimes they’re just stupid. That’s where Hanlon’s Razor comes in:

Hanlon's Razor Meme by Bullshido.net
Yes, that is a spoon, not a razor. That’s the… *removes sunglasses* point.

It takes constant effort to be mindful that genuine stupidity isn’t anyone’s fault. After all, intelligence seems to have a genetic component, and you can’t control whether or not your parents were morons any more than you can control being born a certain race, or sex, or whatever the hell Gingers are, genetically speaking.

The term “stupidity” is used as a catch-all for a person demonstrating a lack of intelligence, but in most cases the real problem is ignorance. Unlike stupidity, ignorance is inexcusable in an age where most people in developed countries have access to the entire collective knowledge of the Human race in their goddamn pocket.

So while we should actively try to tolerate stupidity (Tumblr-speak: check your intellectual privilege, shitnerd) because some people can’t really help it, ignorance–especially the willful kind–is absolutely attributable to malice. It’s important to distinguish between the two so you don’t come off as too much of a dick. Apparently people don’t seem to like that very much, especially if you read their whiny replies to articles, like we don’t.

Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

Mike Alder is an Australian mathematician whose work has occasionally caused him to dabble in philosophy–albeit reluctantly given the intellectual chasm between the disciplines. In a 2004 article he wrote for the magazine Philosophy now, Alder dropped an epistemological nuke into that chasm.

Do you know the tragedy of Darth Isaac, the Virgin?

He explains where the idea came from:

When I was a child, of nine or ten years of age, a particularly sadistic schoolteacher posed the question: “What would happen if an irresistible force acted on an immovable object?” My first response was that if the force was irresistible, then the object must move. “Ah,” said the teacher, who had been here before, “but the object is immovable.”

I thought about this for three days with brief periods out for sleeping. Eventually I concluded that language was bigger than the universe, that it was possible to talk about things in the same sentence which could not both be found in the real world. The real world might conceivably contain some object which had never so far been moved, and it might contain a force that had never successfully been resisted, but the question of whether the object was really immovable could only be known if all possible forces had been tried on it and left it unmoved. So the matter could be resolved by trying out the hitherto irresistible force on the hitherto immovable object to see what happened. Either the object would move or it wouldn’t, which would tell us only that either the hitherto immovable object was not in fact immovable, or that the hitherto irresistible force was in fact resistible.

The scientist’s perception of philosophy is that all too much of it is a variation on the above theme, that a philosophical analysis is a sterile word game played in a state of mental muddle. When you ask of a scientist if we have free will, or only think we have, he would ask in turn: “What measurements or observations would, in your view, settle the matter?” If your reply is “Thinking deeply about it”, he will smile pityingly and pass you by. He would be unwilling to join you in playing what he sees as a rather silly game.

This razor is related to Popper’s, but with just a tinge more “go fuck yourself”. So of course it’s our favorite of the bunch.

Sagan’s Scimitar

Okay, we’re fudging here a bit because nobody calls this “Sagan’s Scimitar”… yet.

Sagan Meme: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence
Sagan’s… Scimitar. Just go with it.

It’s possible you’re familiar with this one; it seems to be rising in popularity in online arguments, becoming nearly as ubiquitous as Occam’s Razor. But a couple things:

1. Carl Sagan never actually said this, but that fact-ship of the imagination seems to have sailed, and as long as the point gets across we’ll leave it to the pedants among us. Besides, it’s a minor quibble, like having Aunt May tell Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility” instead of Uncle Ben, or giving a shit whether Han or Greedo shot first (Lucas did, shot us all right in the Binks). But still, we’re obligated to make a note of it.

Carl Sagan as Spider-Man
Whoever did this was… extraordinary.

2. What Sagan actually said was close enough: “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness”. Sociologist Marcello Truzzi, is the guy who actually used the term, in an attempt to bring Sagan’s erudite speech down to the level of us commoners (kinda like what Bullshido does with Science and profanity!).

So maybe we should be calling this “Marcello’s Machete“, or maybe it doesn’t really matter as long as stupid arguments are getting hacked up by it like a Tutsi family out for a spring stroll in Rawanda circa 1994.

And on that lovely note, we leave you.

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I don't write articles for people who read the New York Times or Nature, I write articles for people who read microwave pizza instructions more than once but are significantly more dangerous as a group. Head Knuckle at Bullshido.
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