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Date Posted: 3/28/16
By Kevin Carpenter, contact:
Occam's razor is a problem-solving principle that can be interpreted as stating among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
This has often been shortened to "All things being equal, the simplest explanation wins".  The problem rests with the general application of the second part of this statement with disregard to the first.  Only if a more complex explanation and the simple explanation work equally well, does this apply.  If a more complex explanation describes the solution more completely, then we cannot assume the premise and choose the simple one.
Scientists get this. Scientists use the principle as a tool to create alternatives rather than the decision method to select the correct answer.  However, the public and "common knowledge" has reduced this to a misapplication bordering on an old wives’ tale.
I believe this has happened because we have systematically lost our ability for critical thinking.  Throughout school we are taught rote facts and shortcuts to learn or making decisions (such as Occam's razor), all in an attempt to compress as much knowledge into our brains in a limited amount of time.  We've forgotten how to think for ourselves and create our own answers.
Some recent examples:
A.      I overheard a customer in a big box store shopping for a water heater.  She lived alone in a small house and was looking at a 40-gallon model.  The salesman quickly pointed out that a bathtub holds more than 40 gallons and you need a larger model to have plenty of hot water.  She took his comment as fact and bought a larger heater.
B.      After tornados wrecked a school in a small Oklahoma town, the town council was asked why they chose not to build shelters prior to the disaster.  They responded that they had done studies and the chance of a tornado hitting their town on any given day was less than 1%.
C.      A friend wanted to dig a 1-acre pond, 12 feet deep in his spare time.  He had a front loader and was filling a 7-yard dump truck to move the dirt to an area 200 yards away.
Ponder the Thought I'll leave you to ponder these for a bit while we explore some techniques to support critical thinking.
1.       Never assume something can "never happen".  Oftentimes we wish away bad outcomes by assuming the worst is impossible.  $100 oil was thought to be impossible at one time, as $30 oil was only a few years ago.  Even if you believe the possibility is very low, explore what can happen to your business/strategy/life if the "impossible" occurs.
2.       Extrapolate past event to find one (but not the most likely) alternative.  Relying on only the past events as an indicator for the future guarantees you will have surprises.  Yet people often extrapolate a growth trend to numbers larger than can be supported (such as world population) or a downward trend all the way to zero.
3.       Use Analogues to test your forecast.  "We've never built this new technology before, but it's similar to this other technology that performs like this, so it is reasonable to expect results somewhat like before". 
4.       Test the extremes.  What if we doubled or tripled our efforts through technology, manpower, or brute force?  What if we lost 80% of our ability to operate because of workforce changes or business interruption?  Put numbers to these test cases to avoid the appearance of simply arm waving.
5.       If facts are missing, estimate the math with rounding to get the quick answer in your head.  (try this on the third example above - no need to use a calculator)
6.       Employ linear thinking.  The creative side of our brain wants to jump to conclusions or accept other's conclusions as facts to quickly move to the next thing.  Slowing ourselves down to think linearly - mapping a stepwise progression of event-outcome-event-outcome and so on, forces us to think in subsets of the problem and test the rationale for a solution.
So let's check some of the logic for the three earlier examples.
A.      A 40-gallon water heater makes 40 gallons of 120-degree water.  Unless you fancy yourself a lobster, you would probably mix it with cold water.  So really, it can fill a 70-80 gallon bathtub.  Plus, the person in the tub displaces  some of the water too.  The store stocks lots of 40-gallon water heaters - someone is buying them - if not a single person living alone, as in the example, then who?  Bottom line, the 40-gallon heater would have been fine.Do The Math
B.      The risk isn't that there's a tornado on a given day, it’s the risk that there's a tornado over the lifetime of using the shelter.  Would you ever use it?  If not, then don't bother building one.  However, with even a 0.5% chance of a tornado on a given day, if we assume a 3 month tornado season and the shelter would be in service for 10 years (900 days of risk) it turns out there's a 98.9% chance there would be one or more tornados during that time, with a 78% chance a tornado hits during an 8 hour school day during the three months over 10 years.  Plenty of reason to build shelters.
C.      And the pond?  Assume an acre is about 45,000 square feet.  1 yard is 9 square feet, but round that 10.  So 45,000/10 says an acre is about 4,500 square yards.  12 feet deep is 4 yards, so the volume is roughly 4,500 x 4 or 18,000 cubic yards.  Some areas of the pond are shallower, so let's reduce the volume to 15,000 cubic yards for estimating in our heads.  The dump truck is 7 yards. So 15,000 yards at 7 yards per load is roughly 2000 loads.  He has to load, drive 200 yards and spread the dirt - maybe 4 trips per hour.  2,000/4 is about 500 hours.  50 10-hour days. - if nothing breaks, no rain, and no rest. Assuming working at most 3 days/week, 4 to 6 months is not an impossible range.  Better get some larger equipment.
Challenge the assumptions, think for yourself, and do the math.



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