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Philosophy and Chemistry: Occam’s Razor

In Scientific American.

Sadly, the multiple derivate restatements of Occam’s Razor combined with our tendency to look for simple explanations can sometimes lead to erroneous results. Part of the blame lies not with Occam’s razor but with his interpreters; the main problem is that it’s not clear what “simple” and “complex” mean when applied to a natural law or phenomena. In addition, nature does not really care about what we perceive as simple or complex, and what may seem complex to us may appear perfectly simple to nature because it’s…real. This was driven home to me early on in my career.

These episodes from my own research underscores the rather complex and subtle nature of Occam’s Razor and its incarnation in scientific models. In the first case, the assumption of multiple conformations is both realistic and predictive. In the second, the assumption of multiple conformations is realistic but not predictive because the multiple-conformation model is not good enough for calculation. In the first case, a simple application of Occam’s razor is flawed while in the second, the flawed simple assumption actually leads to better predictions. Thus, sometimes simple assumptions can work not because the more complex ones are wrong, but because we simply lack the capacity to implement the more complex ones.

I am glad that my work with molecular conformations invariably led me to explore the quirky manifestations of Occam’s razor. And I am thankful to a well-known biochemist who put it best: “Nature doesn’t always shave with Occam’s Razor”. In science as in life, simple can be quite complicated, and complicated can turn out to be refreshingly simple.

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One response to “Philosophy and Chemistry: Occam’s Razor

  1. Kradak Thomas December 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Ockham’s Razor dictates that the simplest answer is more often the best answer. This is in opposition to Rube Goldberg’s Razor! If you are inquisitive, have experience with nature, and think that a more complex explanation for a phenomenon may be at hand, Science doesn’t have unlimited resources to listen to you unless you have some evidence to back it up.

    Thus, the problem is not with Ockham–simple answers exist for any question. If you disagree with the answer, maybe you aren’t asking the right questions. For a scientist, this might involve breaking down the original question into its components and finding the invidual answers. Together, these answers may constitute a Goldbergian set, but individually, they may all adhere to Ockham.

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