Ockham’s Razor: the Psychological Need for this Important Philosophical Concept

I think that Ockham’s Razor deserves wider discussion and application (“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”).  The issue for me is not that simpler is better, it’s that complexity in any intellectual artifacts will often do more to obscure meaning than it is to enlighten us. It came to my attention while listening to the Goldman Sachs testimony and the general feeling that financial engineering was too complex for the US Congress to understand.  I believe this complexity in financial systems was multiplied beyond necessity, and the most obvious reason is that this complexity helped to obscure what was going on between traders.

Science is also not without fault, not only with complex theoretical statements, but also with the expansion of vocabulary.  Sometimes theoretical or lexical complexity is necessary in order to communicate nuances.  But then the complexity often takes on a life of its own.  This not only restricts the ability to communicate, but also taxes cognition.  Reducing complexity can help us to think better.

An example from my early life in graduate school.  I once was reading Henry Giroux late at night, finished a paragraph, and realized that I had understood nothing from that paragraph.  Two more readings of that paragraph did not bring any more enlightenment.  Of course is was because I was not familiar with the vocabulary or with the arguments he was presenting.  Now when I fine a new Giroux book, I’ll scan through the pages to see if there have been any changes or development to his basic argument.

It’s not only experience that causes this to happen, it’s also that I now understand Giroux’s arguments at a much simpler level.  When we cannot simplify our cognition, we are forced to understand things in a much more route fashion.  It happens in methodology too!  The more complex the methodology is, the more likely that people will use set methodological formulas or use others work in unquestioned ways.  When it can be simplified, our ability to cognitively manipulate ideas is increased.

So, for me, Ockham’s Razor does not mean that simple theories may be the best, but that simple understandings allows us to do our best thinking.

How does Social Media Function in Activity: A Vygotskian (Via Attwell) Inspired Idea

Reading Graham Attwell’s post on Vygotsky and Learning Environments leads me to relate a social cultural constructivist approach to the educational critique he discusses.  It relates to the idea (originating in my study of Vygotskian ideas)that knowledge is a mediator for doing things and knowledge develops a different mediational function and purpose if you insert it into another activity.
Think of the Vygotskian triangle encompassing and unifying the subject object and mediator in a specific activity.  All three aspects (subject, object, mediator) are defined by the way they are joined in activity.  Contrast that with many educational endeavors where we take practitioner knowledge, originally design as a complex mediator that  enables a worker to  achieve a specific outcome.  (eg. a theory, used by a scientist,  to produce new knowledge) and put it into an educational setting.  In the educational setting the Vygotskian triangle changes.  The worker becomes a student, the outcome – a representation of the knowledge, and the mediator is some sort of memorization schema.  Is it any wonder that the represented knowledge does not transfer to a new situation (i.e. transform from a knowledge representation to a complex mediator in a completely new activity).
A valid critique of the way education is set up is Graham’s reference to Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver (2005) and teachers focus on giving information or knowledge to students.  I relate this quote to new educational methods like Carl Wieman‘s (discussed here) and Middendorf’and Paces’ Decoding the Disciplines (2004) (discussed here).  These methods focus on using knowledge in a mediation function to do things instead of learning information.
I differ from Graham when he says “socio-cultural theories of knowledge acquisition stress the importance of collaborative learning and ‘learning communities”.  Communities are important because that where activities are historically developed, where mediators are thought up and where activity outcomes become culturally important.  Community is also important because that is also where everything is passed on to others.  But if you want to know how social media functions, don’t look at the surface, look at how it functions within activities (how people functionally integrate social media into culturally important activity).  If you look at the surface of social media, what pops out at you is the communication collaboration aspects.  But, from this (Vygotskian derived) educational theory, the importances is in how social media can be adapted as a mediation source and incorporated into ones activity.  The communication and collaborative aspects are usually surface aspects (unless it makes sense to think of them as the activity itself).  What I advocate for is to look beyond appearances to how social media functions (or could function) in people’s activity.
Non-linkable References
Herrington, J., Reeves, T., and Oliver, R. (2005). Online learning as information delivery: Digital myopia.Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 16(4): 353-67.
Middendorf, J. & Pace, D. (2004). Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98, 1-12.

Evidence-based Testing (Assessment)

I confess; I love the 35,000 foot view.  An article by an old pro, who gives us their overview of the future of their field.  This is Howard Wainer’s, 14 Conversations About Three Things.  His intended audience are researchers of the 21st Century.  His three things are what skills will they need (see #1 below), what problems are worth investigating (See #2) and what topics are not (See #3).

What jumped out at me was the topic, Evidence-based Testing (EBTD) and the premiss behind his recommendation.  (I have more study to do, but EBTD seems to be testing designed with validity in mind.)  His premiss is that statistical analysis has been very well researched and we can get more bang for the buck by focusing on improvements in test design.  We have done a better job improving data analysis than we have in data collection.  I think this premiss holds true across society (education, business, science etc. . . ).  We are generally better at analysis than we are at data collection.  In many cases it is garbage in – garbage out.  It’s not that analysis is unimportant, it’s just that the easiest way to improve analysis is in improving the data / information that forms the basis of analysis.  How do we do this?  By designing measures with greater validity.

  1. Six skills needed by 21st Century Researchers: Bayesian Methods, (Modeling) Causal Inference, (Dealing with) Missing Data, (Graphic representation for) Picturing Data, Writing Clear Prose, A Deep Understanding of Type I and Type II Errors.
  2. Important topic for 21st Century investigation: Evidence-based Test Design, Value Added (statistical) Models, New Kinds of Data (mostly made possible by computer networks)The integration of Computerized Adaptive Testing, Diagnostic Testing and Individualized Instruction.
  3. Topic that can be given a rest: Differential Item Functioning, The Rasch Model, Factor Analysis / Path Models, New Measures of Reliability.


      Wainer, H, (2010). 14 Conversations About Three Things, Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 35 (#1) 5-25.

      Critical Thinking, Scientific Reasoning, and the Incorporation of Evidence into Everyday Practice: A Conceptual SymbiosisI

      It seems to me that there is a natural affinity between evidence-based practice, scientific reasoning and critical thinking.  I think Kuhn (quoted in Dawson, 2000) captures the essence of this symbiosis:

      I have undertaken here to show that these two abilities–the ability to recognize the possible falsehood of a theory and the identification of evidence capable of disconfirming it–are the foundational abilities that lie at the heart of both informal and scientific reasoning. These abilities lie at the heart of critical thinking, which similarly can be regarded, at the most global level, as the ability to justify what one claims to be true (Kuhn, 1993).

      Some background considerations and directions for future thoughts and research.

      1. I’m taking the perspective that what cognitive control we have over our decisions and actions, is mediated by our beliefs, theories, schemas and prior knowledge.  Without this mediation everyday actions would represent an unbearable cognitive load.
      2. Although there are good strategies for enabling critical thinking, at it’s core, critical thinking is the ability and disposition to seek disconfirming evidence and use it to change our minds (beefs schemas, theories, etc. . . ).
      3. Although we often equate scientific thinking with the scientific method (hypothesis testing), the core of it’s reasoning is also the disposition to seek and make use of disconfirming evidence.
      4. Evidence-based organizations must actively support critical thinking through their culture and in the organization of their internal processes and practices.
      5. Practice validity (seeking evidence for the validity of organizational practices) is the ability to justify the efficacy of our actions, just as Kuhn considers critical thinking to be a way to justify our claims to truth.

      A shout-out to Harold Jarche who’s post Critical thinking in the organization led me down this primrose path.


      Dawson, R. (2000). Critical Thinking, Scientific Thinking, and Everyday Thinking: Metacognition about Cognition, Academic Exchange Quarterly, accessed 4-8–10 at http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Critical+Thinking,+Scientific+Thinking,+and+Everyday+Thinking:…-a067872702

      Kuhn, D. (1993). Connecting scientific and informal reasoning. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 39(1), 74-103.