Understanding Ockham’s Razor will help you solve problems

I recently had two experiences that reminded me of Ockham’s Razor.

    • My refrigerator’s ice-maker stopped working and ice cubes dwindled to a dozen a day. Mary and I considered buying a new refrigerator (the one we have is 20+ years old). Another option was to replace just the ice-maker; I had done that about six years ago and could do it again. Fortunately, before I made a major move, I realized a simple solution. The previous winter I had turned down the thermostat on the freezer. Adjusting it to a colder setting solved the problem. 
    • My lawn sprinkler system wasn’t working. I replaced the timer, but it still didn’t work, so I scheduled a repairman to fix it. I mentioned the problem to a friend, who suggested I check to see if the water valve to the system was turned off. It was. So with one twist of the valve the problem was solved.

Ockham’s Razor is the problem-solving principle attributed to philosopher and theologian William of Ockham (c.1287–1347). It is sometimes paraphrased as: the simplest solution is most likely the right one. Ockham’s Razor says that when presented with competing theories, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions.

For instance, when considering the following problem, which solution is most likely to be correct? Problem: a fence post is broken. Possible solutions: 1. An albino cow, looking for its long-lost sibling, crashed through the fence in despair. Or 2. An old nail rusted through the fence post and broke.

The medical community has its own version of Ockham’s Razor. Zebra is the code word for arriving at an exotic medical diagnosis when a more commonplace explanation is more likely. It is shorthand for an aphorism coined in the late 1940s by Theodore Woodward, professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who instructed his medical interns, “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras.”

The next time you’re confronted with a problem, first consider the simplest solution before progressing toward more complex solutions. 

14 Replies to “Understanding Ockham’s Razor will help you solve problems”

  1. Brilliant! I needed that right now. Perhaps because I work so hard, am proud of my work ethic, and want credit for an explanation that I worked so hard to figure out, I vigorously defend my “zebras.” But this has tended to also cause me to be a person who escalates things. Thank you!

    1. Nancy, thanks for sharing a keen insight. Sometimes we almost want there to be a complicates solution because it justifies our work/position.

  2. Great hypothesis, Don. Without meaning any sacrilege, I find this concept akin to Jesus announcement that we must become as a little child…We tend to be proud of our sophistication. A complex solution is more “upscale” than a simple solution. I’ll probably brag about my complex solution, but won’t mention the simple one.

  3. Earlier this year (before the pandemic), I thought I had the flu. My doctor tested for flu and results were negative. At home I began treating symptoms (low grade fever, dry, hacking cough, body aches, etc.) with Tylenol, Vick’s chest rubs, bed rest, and ‘it’ disappeared after a week or so. I am now convinced I had COVID-19. Simple treatment is sometimes the best. It worked for me.

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