Highly charged events often produce highly questionable assertions, allegations, opinions masquerading as facts, and armchair erudition. We are inundated with such even in quiet times, and that inundation becomes deluge when things get “interesting.” A discerning reader may become overwhelmed in his efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff, the signal from the noise, and the worthwhile from the delusional or deceitful.

Fortunately, a few simple tools can contribute greatly to our ability to do so. Collectively, these are known as Philosophical Razors, and they are remarkable in their keenness.

Seven hundred years ago, Franciscan friar William of Ockham offered us:

Occam’s Razor: The simplest answer is usually the correct one.

Rather more recently, there emerged this ditty, possibly inspired by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who’d have penned it during the mid-latter half of the twentieth century:

Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Even more recently, writer and infamous gadfly Christopher Hitchens penned:

Hitchens’ Razor: What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

During his landmark television series Cosmos, Carl Sagan popularized an aphorism that’s been floating around erudite circles for a century or two:

The Sagan Standard: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (ECREE).

And, finally, back in the days of colonial America, Benjamin Franklin wrote, in the guise of his Poor Richard persona, an English version of an old Gaelic proverb, Cha rùn agus rùn aig triùir e – It’s not a secret if three people know it.

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

This last doesn’t have a popular name, so I’ll dub it The Franklin Standard.

Together, these five fine thinkers: Occam, Hanlon, Hitchens, Sagan, and Franklin, give us a set of informal tests for ideas and assertions that we encounter in our daily lives. This isn’t to say that a notion that doesn’t survive them is necessarily invalid, just that, as a starting point, our reaction to that notion, whether it be approval or skepticism, would be well served by their application, and we would be well served in challenging our own cognitive biases by applying them liberally.

So, carry them with you, and use them well. Unlike a Gillette, Bic, or Schick, they won’t get duller with use.

For those who feel there are never enough tools in the box, I offer a few more:

Hume’s Guillotine: What ought to be cannot be deduced from what is. Or… Causes must be able to produce the effect assigned to them.
Alder’s Razor, AKA Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword: If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate.
Popper’s Falsifiability Principle: For a theory to be considered scientific, it must be falsifiable.
The Duck Test: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
The Zebra Principle: When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra.

And a conversational lubricant:

Grice’s Razor: Address what the speaker actually meant, instead of addressing the literal meaning of what he actually said, AKA, “You know what I meant.”

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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