6 Essential Logical Razors for Mastering an Agile Mindset
Your mental edge in life will be as sharp as your skill in using these six razors
(This article is part of an on-going series dedicated to developing Agile mastery. Each post offers value to students on this journey, however, there is an advantage to those who start at the beginning.)
The result from tumbling down a rabbit hole this past week: A collection of logical razors.
"Logical razors" (or "epistemological razors," if you prefer $2 words) are meant to shorten the decision making process by helping us "shave off" any unlikely explanations or extraneous "facts." They help us find answers by separating the bullshit from the high nutrition facts. Bullshit being wacky, unlikely, fantasy-laden, or otherwise unrealistic explanations for events. If you've ever had the thought, "I don't have time for this bullshit!", there's a good chance applying one of the following logical razors will help you suss out how to go about freeing yourself from the tyranny of scatological excess masquerading as information. Here's my set of essential epistemological razors.
Fact or Fiction / Cause or Effect
Once upon a time there was a practice called "science." People who practice science in those days refrained from accusations of "denialist" or punishing people for debating "settled science" or engaging in ad hominem attacks against colleagues who questioned science that was politically convenient. In a world where "lived experience" has replaced scientific methods and practices, the following razors are particularly important for keeping one's mind open, safe, and healthy in the 21st century.
"Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate", sayeth William of Occam, an early 14th century Franciscan friar. Translated from Latin: "Entities should not be multiplied without necessity." Translated from logic speak: "Keep it simple."
Imagine it's late at night and you discover your porch light isn't lit. Why?
The light switch has been flipped to "off."
The light bulb has burnt out.
The darkness is extra thick this night and has enveloped the light fixture, thus preventing the illumination of the porch.
Apply Occam's razor and start with the explanation that depends on the fewest assumptions or is infused with the smallest number of hypotheticals. This may not be the actual answer, but it's almost always the best place to start. One note of caution. The wisdom of Einstein applies: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Keep an eye open for when the returns diminish in value.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. - Robert J. Hanlon
A specialized application of Occam's razor best applied to human behavior where any assumption of malice without incontrovertible evidence is fraught with ambiguity. People make mistakes and being especially intelligent is no hedge against this. The more probable assumption is a positive intention unskillfully applied. There is a corollary to Hanlon's razor, based on Clark's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice."
We like to think we're faced with a worthy adversary in situations where resistance to change is high. It seems to make the effort more heroic or valiant. More worth our valuable and irrecoverable time. Alas, perhaps Alexandre Dumas said it best: "I prefer rogues to imbeciles, because rogues sometimes rest."
What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. - Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens' razor can be paired with the Segan Standard for an extra smooth and comfortable shave: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." One of my favorites, Hitchens' razor helps me channel my inner Hitch and places the burden of proof squarely on the person making any spurious claims. If the burden of truth isn't met by the claimant there is no concomitant responsibility for you or I to prove the claim is false and we can therefore dismiss the claim. Hitchens' razor spares us the pain and agony of wasting a second of of precious time on someone who is fractally wrong.
Named for philosopher David Hume, states that when we are faced with any claim that lacks sufficient evidence, we should not accept it as fact. At best, it qualifies as mere opinion or, in the prevailing vernacular, "lived experience." However, it’s possible there is truth behind the claim. After all, most people are not creative enough to invent some of the fantastical things we hear today. If the stakes are sufficiently important, the best course of action is to pursue the source. Where better to start than the person from whom you've heard the claim? Who or what is their source? Be relentless. "Because" isn't a source. Neither is "Everybody knows it."
Healthy and Compassionate Civil Discourse
Conversational implicature (A couple more $2 words for you. You're welcome.) is something posited by British philosopher Herbert Paul Grice. So I don't bust your fancy word budget with a formal definition, the idea is that we figure out what people mean not just by what they say, but the way they say it, too. For example, while dining at a restaurant you ask the waiter, "Can you bring us some extra butter?" The waiter is likely to say "Yes" and then go and fetch some extra butter for your table rather then say "Yes" and not return again except to leave the check. Rather than interpret your request as a literal query into his capabilities, the waiter has inferred the meaning that what you actually want is for him to go find some extra butter and bring it back to your table.
Over 50 years ago, Albert Mehrabian did research on the components of a face-to-face conversation. His conclusion was that - in general - communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words.1 While there is plenty of quibbling over the percentages, there's no disputing the fact that strict word definitions are a minor component to how we communicate face-to-face. What this means for every conversation in which we engage is that it’s on us to include what the speaker meant with their words rather than narrowly interpret what was said based on literal definitions. To this end, Grice's razor pairs nicely with Hanlon's razor.
Named for a little West Highland terrier of mine, this isn't so much a razor as it is a threshold to be mindful of in any social situation. Unlike my other Westie, Rosebud, who would seek attention at any gathering we hosted for as long as people stayed, Ginger would mingle for a bit until she had enough of the crowd and then wander off to do her own thing. Over time, her preference for some people over others was apparent. Some people just rubbed her the wrong way. Sometimes literally. Without any fanfare, she'd make her exit.
While it's important to keep our mind open to new ideas and perspective, it's also important to know our limits. If a conversation drifts into waters we find unpleasant, then perhaps it's time to apply Ginger's razor and seek an exit before we're inspired to open our mouth and contribute to churning the muck in a way that we later regret.
If you have any questions, need anything clarified, or have something else on your mind, please use the comments section or email me directly.
Mehrabian actually described his results in terms of "liking" with the following equation:
Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking
Thus the impact of facial expression is greatest, then the impact of the tone of voice (or vocal expression), and finally that of words.
Mehrabian, A., (1971), Silent Messages, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., pg. 43