Frustrating Exchange on Ockham’s Razor Continued

A follow-up to my previous post on this frustrating exchange. Here is my final post with Gkochanowsky’s embedded replies.

Your characterization of philosophy is ridiculous (again a straw man argument). Do you forget that the origin of some of our sciences is in philosophy? Adam Smith, father of modern economics, philosopher; Gottfried Leibniz, co-creator of the calculus, philosopher; William James, pioneering psychologist, philosopher; Bertrand Russell, great logician aiding in the production of a logical foundation for mathematics and much more (paving the road for computer science), philosopher, etc. I anticipate that you will say that their contributions are science and their failings are philosophy, by definition– a cheap tautological victory that shields you from ever having to learn anything about philosophy.

Science uses criteria which I have restated often enough, it has experiment on reality and it prefers explanations that win in fidelity and predictability, not simplicity. Simplicity is nice, but hardly a criteria of preference in scientific explanations.

I’m afraid that what you list is insufficient for uniquely identifying a theory; underdetermination is a specter that cannot be banished that easily. There are quite literally an infinite number of theories/models/inferences logically consistent with any finite number of data points in a possibility space equivalent to the reals. Curve fitting is an excellent example to illustrate this point. How do we determine which curve wins-out in “fidelity and predictability”? I can tell you why a particular one wins in terms of simplicity and fit, and, better, how it enables important epistemic goals (reliability, predictive accuracy, etc.). Again, please look at the literature.

How often do you think the situation arises where there are two competing explanations that predict the exact same outcomes? And if you can name just one instance can you tell me what actually happened? Do you actually think that everyone asked, ‘which is the “simplest”?’ Of course not. Has it ever occurred to you that scientific explanations have become broader and broader over time? That in many cases seemingly more complex explanations are actually simpler in application in certain circumstances. And because the explanations are now so broad this happens all the time. This idea that somehow the “simplest” explanation wins out is just nonsense. Gkochanowsky 01:35, 24 February 2007 (UTC)

From whence does your monolithic understanding of scientific methodology come? Any references? Does it change your mind that scientists have also written on the significance of simplicity as a theoretical virtue (e.g. Zellner, A., Keuzenkamp, H. & McAleer, M. (eds.) (2001) Simplicity, Inference and Modelling: Keeping It Sophisticatedly Simple, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.): The editors of [Simplicity, Inference and Modelling] “sent out surveys to 25 recent Nobel laureates in economics. Almost all replied that simplicity played a role in their research, and that simplicity is a desirable feature of economic theories (Zellner et al. 2001, p.2).” (from the article on Simplicity at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Why do you keep citing philosophies take on science. I could care less what philosophy has to say about science. When philosophy comes up with a ‘philosophy of philosophy’ perhaps I might consider it authoritative on itself but until then I wish philosophers would mind their own business. I am very much aware that each person has their own concept of what constitutes “simple” or “elegant” or “beautiful” or whatever. So what? As I have stated before it matters not what mechanism you use to concoct your explanation. Use dreams for all I care. Use any esthetic you like. But in the end as far as science is concerned it will not be judged on any of those things, but on fidelity and predictive power. If such esthestics were the actual criteria of science then QM would never have seen the light of day. Do you have any idea how many explanations have been created by well respected scientists that thought they were “simple”, “elegant”, “beautiful” or whatever and they were flat out wrong? It far, far, far outweighs the number that statisfied these estheics but were right. To ignore this is to practice magical thinking. To concentrate on the confirming instances but ingore the disconfirming instances is self foolery. Of course we don’t normally hear about the failures but only an idiot with no actual experience and knowledge of science would think that they are not there. Dirac’s big number hypothesis comes to mind, and I was there when he gave the talk, and it is still just a “simple” idea but it is not science. I doesn’t have any predictive power. And just because Dirac came up with it doesn’t mean it was any good. Gkochanowsky 01:35, 24 February 2007 (UTC)

My efforts are better spent editing this entry. Like AceMyth, I will swallow a frog and leave you to your ad hominems and categorical statements; maybe (hope beyond hope) you will actually look at the resources that I have provided and try to see what use OR might be in theory selection, and thus, science. Johnny Logic 23:23, 22 February 2007 (UTC)

You seem to think you know something about philosophy. Perhaps you never learned that argument from authority is a fallacy. At best all you can do is present what they thought, but it doesn’t make it right. If you are going to convince me how about doing some science instead of philosophy. Present observations of instances of competing scientific explanations where the preferred explanation was chosen using Ockham’s razor. Otherwise make all the claims you like, the emperor has no clothes. Gkochanowsky 01:35, 24 February 2007 (UTC)

Again he repeats himself. No argument, just holding the goal posts up so that only science can validate scientific method. And, of course, he hurls a few more insults, impugning my understanding of philosophy and so on. As I wrote, I gave him the last word on Wikipedia, so I do not intend to enguage him any further.

At Gkochanowsky’s last word, an administrator posted the following:

Wikipedia is not a forum. Since none of this has feed into the article, perhaps you might consider continuing your debate elsewhere? Banno 02:24, 24 February 2007 (UTC)

I certainly agree with this suggestion. Gkochanowsky replies with a whine:

I’ve tried that in the past but it soon gets edited out by Ockham enthusiasts. That leaves the discussion. Which of course is exactly what has been going on. Gkochanowsky 03:56, 24 February 2007 (UTC)

AceMyth returns with some constructive suggestions about leveraging the conversation into positive changes in the Occam’s Razor entry, and Gkochanowsky comes back to play repeat himself and complain some more:

Hopping in: If the issue actually is improving the article rather than taking slights at each other regarding our understandings of the relation between philosophy and science then there shouldn’t be much of a fundamental problem here. This isn’t the first time Wikipedia has ever stumbled upon the challenge of a controversial subject, after all. As long as you can cite a few prominent sources in the literature of science that take the position that Occam’s razor is irrelevant or useless (so as to avoid original research) and fairly represent the gist of their arguments, a “Is Occam’s Razor important to science?” section or something to that extent should work just fine. (Plus on the other hand some of Johnny Logic’s references to sources that find the razor useful/important could definitely find their place in the article, as a counter-balance to this or otherwise). —AceMyth 15:50, 25 February 2007 (UTC)

That is a good point. However the onus is on those that contend that Ockham’s is an important criteria of preference in science. And the only way they can honestly support that claim it not to cite philosophers, but to cite instances in science where one explanation was preferred over another solely on the basis of Ockham’s. And cases of particluar scientists claims of use in concocting their proposed explanation are only applicable in those instances where the competing explanations the particular scientist was considering, and the claimed “simplest” explanation are also presented for examiniation. Otherwise they have nothing to back up their claims. What you are asking of me is to prove a negative, something as you all know is impossible to do if we are talking about actual reality. Gkochanowsky 20:09, 26 February 2007 (UTC)

What you can or can’t prove isn’t the point here. Your argument could be the most spectacular piece of absolute brilliance and the opposing view a huge staggering mistake, and Wikipedia would still be about reporting controversies, not ruling in them. As long as there’s anybody of significance who shares your opinion you should just present their arguments and let them speak for themselves (note that said arugments might very well be of the very form you used, namely that the burden of proof lies on people who claim the razor to be important, and you can’t prove a negative etc.). If you can’t find any significant existing literature to take this point of view, on the other hand, then there are plenty of good places to construct an argument, present your own conclusions and get a discussion going. Wikipedia just isn’t one of them. —AceMyth 20:32, 26 February 2007 (UTC)

I will, as time allows, do as AceMyth suggested and incorporate the ideas and references in my comments into the OR entry.

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