We spend tons of time qualifying what makes a “good decision.” But here’s a question we rarely ask: what, specifically, is a decision?
The Latin root of the word decision means “to cut.” So, in retro-literal terms, a decision is when you “cut away” the other options and commit to the one you’ve left intact.
We’re wordy-nerdy, sure, but that’s also the perfect starting point for explaining razors. In logic and philosophy, a razor is a rule of thumb that you can use to “cut” or “shave” weaker lines of reasoning — which can help you to make wiser judgments and cleaner decisions, especially when the clock is ticking fast.
We’ll teach three of the sharpest razors and then cut you loose to shave some B.S. out of your life. It’s the weekend, after all… you ain’t got time for that.
When confronted with equally plausible lines of reasoning, favor the one which makes fewer assumptions.
Let’s clarify this with an example: you’re meeting up with your buddies Bill and Ted, except Bill doesn’t show and he isn’t answering calls or texts right now. You figure he’s just running behind and can’t answer the phone because he’s driving—but then Ted starts wondering aloud if Bill’s been kidnapped.
Remember, you don’t yet have any idea what’s actually happening with Bill, so neither theory can be ruled out yet. In other words: your theory and Ted’s theory are equally plausible at first.
Clarification: Probability and Plausibility are completely separate things. The former (and only the former) says how likely something is, while the latter says how possible something is.
Occam’s Razor doesn’t say that you’re right or that Ted is wrong, but it does favor your theory. This is because, while any theory requires assumptions, your theory requires two simple assumptions and Ted’s theory requires a self-multiplying list of assumptions. Your theory only has two places where it can be challenged, whereas Ted’s theory has a dozen good strike points.
Small but important clarification: Occam’s Razor does NOT translate to “the best theories always have the fewest assumptions.” As it’s stated, Ted’s theory would be cut by Occam’s Razor—but if he can validate enough of his assumptions (and Bill remains mysteriously absent), his theory eventually becomes more plausible than yours despite a higher number of assumptions.
Never attribute to malice what is explained by stupidity.
In some tellings, the word “stupidity” is replaced by “ignorance.” Either way, this is essentially the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), except re-phrased into a nice, blunt chunk of advice.
Notice that the two objects of Hanlon’s Razor — malice and ignorance — function in completely different ways. Malice requires conscious thought and intent, whereas (true) ignorance cannot be intentional because it is invisible to itself. An inverted way of saying the same thing: you have to try to be malicious, but nobody has to be try to be ignorant because that’s everyone’s default state (you can’t know things until you learn them).
Any decent gambler knows which of the two is likelier to cause the random situation in front of you. Still, we can easily mistake ignorance for malice because evolution’s maxim is “better safe than sorry,” and the impulse to judge deeply gives us better chances of survival no matter how “unfair” it may be.
The SAGAN STANDARD:
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
If you think about it, this is just a more generalized version of what typical people understand (correctly) about principles of justice. Claiming that one person murdered another is a pretty extraordinary claim, simply by its magnitude; thus, our justice system is supposed to presume innocence and require charges like murder to be judged by unanimous verdict “beyond reasonable doubt.”
But never mind the courtroom stuff; the Sagan Standard applies anywhere that someone might make “an extraordinary claim.” Let’s consider a friendly example from Sagan’s own subject matter: astrophysics and, specifically, the question of other intelligent life in the universe.
Two similar but very different arguments: (A) Intelligent life could exist somewhere other than Earth and (B) Intelligent life does exist somewhere other than Earth. Argument A would be considered “ordinary” because it merely suggests a possibility which is plausible according to existing knowledge.
Argument B, however, would be considered “extraordinary” because it exceeds existing knowledge—which includes both observable facts and any logical deductions from those facts. Argument B, for its credibility or even coherence, will require you to present one or both types of “extraordinary” evidence (new facts and/or new logical deductions). In other words, Sagan isn’t just being picky; he’s highlighting the logical reason you might sound crazy if you don’t do your homework.
On that final note, you could say Hitchens’s Razor is similar, if somewhat inverted: what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
PRACTICAL ADVICE in CLOSING:
1️⃣ Remember what they say about assumptions. For anyone who somehow missed this lesson, they say “assume and you make an ASS out of U and ME.” Which is infuriating because (A) they’re mostly right, except where (B) you’re likelier to make an ass of yourself with dumb assumptions and (C) their mnemonic is supremely annoying. But we digress.
2️⃣ It’s often best (and most accurate) to assume people are well-meaning but dumb. If that stings, give us two sentences. First: for 99% of people, Being Passably Likable is a high priority and Filling The Infinite Void Of My Ignorance is a low priority. Second, and to validate the Dumb part in particular, we borrow George Carlin’s authority: “Think about how stupid the average person is, and realize that half of them are dumber than that.” 🤯
3️⃣ If something seems too good OR bad to be true, it probably is. That should be common sense, but if we’re being honest, we’ve all gotten carried away sometimes — especially when we’re passionate, or desperate. If you need a mantra to slow down a bit (from either extreme), just remember that life is a series of Wednesdays. In the grand scheme, most days will be boring for most people (even in 2020), and the only difference between success and failure is whether you’re trading your problems up or down on a typical day.