Sunday, September 10, 2006

Occam's Razor in the Law

Occam's Razor is a tool of scientific and philosophic inquiry. Simply stated, it posits that the simplest theory is the best, or that the simplest explanation is the most likely to be true. Leonardo Da Vinci's riff on this theory was the aphorism: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication"

Clicking on the above link will take you to a terrific Wikipedia page on Razor theory. I ran across an interesting reference to it reading David Liss's "A Spectacle of Corruption" - a paperback historical fiction set in seventeenth century London that I found in an airport bookstore. The book is a great page-turner and I couldn't put it down.

For years, I've been subjected to the Razor by editors, judges and juries. My tendency to present complicated facts, suggest multiple alternative theories and to consider mixed motives has at times frustrated them all. When chopping away at an unwieldy brief, my Razor has left a few bleeding victims, too.

If I'm allowed to add another riff to Razor theory: "Where the truth is complicated, you must simplify it to be credible." The Wikipedia has references to the use of the Razor in science, statistics, religion, medicine and biology (among others), but none in law. Politics is missing, too. The Razor does help to explain why the natural human tendency is to distrust and dislike the complexity of democracy and constitutions and to be drawn to the simplicity of authoritarian systems. When sloganeers wielding the Razor make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Constitution and democracy suffer. "The Constitution is not a suicide pact" is the rallying cry for authoritarians wishing to eliminate the complexities and inefficiences of such democratic concepts as "due process of law".

The frightening thing is that these ideologues believe that stripping Americans of basic democratic freedoms will make the world safe for democracy.

Next time you're facing the Razor and getting cut to ribbons, pick up a simple piece of the puzzle. Fit it in, move to the next piece. After three convincing pieces, your audience will trust that the fourth piece will fit.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Joel said...

"The Constitution is not a suicide pact" is the rallying cry for authoritarians wishing to eliminate the complexities and inefficiences of such democratic concepts as "due process of law"

The "suicide pact" quote is generally ascribed to Chief Justice Robert H. Jackson in the 1949 case of Terminiello v. Chicago. You may recall that he had just finished prosecuting the Nuremberg Trials. It is the height of absurdity to claim that he wished to undermine the due process of law, even more that this desire sprung from some authoritarian urge. Whose doing the "sloganeering" here?

4:23 PM  

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