[1] Not to be confused with Harvard’s Fred L. Whipple, leading authority on comets and coiner (in 1950) of the “Dirty Snowball” theory of cometary composition. [Return to text.]

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Question: Occam’s Razor vs. the Faerie Conspiracy Hypothesis

by Chronos
(Submitted in response to Soapbox Seminar #2: Star Wars)

Interesting. So [Jack]’s method of addressing Occam’s Razor is to just decree that it’s irrelevant whenever any explanation is not quite complete.

This is absolutely incorrect. I can exactly explain the Tunguska event by a Faerie Conspiracy Hypothesis: A team of brownie lumberjacks very carefully cut down all the trees, and lowered them using winches into the radial blast pattern. Carbonation on the trees was added by dryads with eyedroppers of liquid carbon. The seismic activity detected in various parts of the world was added locally at each seismograph by oreids just under the detectors, the reindeer were all ritually slaughtered by pucks, and the observed fireball was produced by nixies shining sunlight into all the witnesses’ eyes with mirrors. A suitable elaboration of the Faerie Conspiracy Hypothesis can explain any observed piece of evidence, and unlike the comet or asteroid hypotheses, it is consistent with all the data.

The only argument against the Faerie Conspiracy Hypothesis is Occam’s Razor. But [Jack] would tell us that Occam’s Razor doesn’t apply here, because there’s other evidence against all of the other hypotheses.

Doctor Jack's Answer

Interesting indeed.

Let me say right up front that Chronos and I pretty much see eye to eye far as the Faerie Conspiracy Hypothesis (FCH) is concerned. Ockham’s Razor does apply to the FCH, and it should. The question is: why doesn’t it cut against my own “Vurdalak Conjecture” too?

To see why I don’t think it does, we’ve got to take a closer look at what William of Ockham really had in mind when he proposed his rule of “not multiplying causes beyond necessity.” And Chronos has given us a pretty good place to start.

Take another look at Chronos’s Faerie Conspiracy. On the face of it, it looks to involve a whole slew of different “causes” — you’ve got your brownies and your dryads and your oreids (whatever they are) and your pucks and nixies and such. It gets so you can’t tell your sprites without a scorecard.

How about if we simplify things a tad, and just lump all those critters together under a single label: supernatural beings.

It's Chronos's introduction of the supernatural that makes his FCH a really good example of what William of Ockham — what science as a whole — was fighting against back in the 14th century. Because back then, folks were inclined to explain all sorts of natural phenomena as the actions of invisible, intangible, supernatural forces or entities — gods and demons and angels and the like. And the thing of it is, you can’t really refute an explanation like that. Us mortals can’t even perceive the supernatural, much less design an experiment that’d prove or disprove whether it’s present and active in any given case. So, anyone can always come along and claim that it really was demons made the milk go sour, or angels made the baby smile, whether our instruments can detect them or not.

At the same time, unless science can rule out supernatural explanations somehow, it’s just plain stuck. Because once you’ve swallowed the idea of supernatural intervention in the natural world, you’ve as much as admitted that the laws of nature have got no independent status or integrity. As, in fact, they wouldn’t — not if any run-of-the-mill angel or demon could take it in his head to set them aside any time he feels like it.

But take away the laws of nature as a firm foundation, and all bets are off. No natural law, no science.

That’s where the Razor comes in. We might not be able to refute explanations based on supernatural causes (since we can’t very well refute what we can’t even detect), but we can simply discard them — rule them out, cut them off at the roots with a single swipe of Ockham’s Razor.

But, this can’t be what Chronos means here, not unless he’s claiming that little black holes are supernatural. And I don’t think he is.

I mean, it’s for sure no one’s ever seen a tiny black hole. But we have “seen” big ones, if you’ll maybe grant me a little leeway in how I use the word “see” here. I mean, no one’s ever seen a dinosaur, either, but we have seen enough of their tracks and bones and droppings to be pretty sure they existed (assuming all that stuff wasn’t planted by the Faeries). No one (as of this week, but stay tuned) has seen extrasolar planets or brown dwarfs either, but you aren’t going to find many astronomers willing to stand up and say they don’t exist, leastways not on those grounds — the circumstantial evidence is good enough for most folks. And the circumstantial evidence for supermassive black holes is about as good.

So, can we at least all agree that the existence of really little black holes — what we call “primordial black holes” (or PBHs for short) — wouldn’t violate any laws of nature? (I’ll be talking about how likely it is that PBHs do exist in a later Soapbox. Probably upset some folks there too, but, believe me, I’m not pushing controversy for its own sake. It’s just that trying to make the best case for ideas that go against the conventional wisdom is one of the ways science moves ahead.)

And if PBHs are natural objects, then an argument that works against the Fairy (i.e., supernatural) Conspiracy Hypothesis wouldn't necessarily work against them, now would it?

On the other hand, Ockham’s Razor is good for more than just ruling out the supernatural. Let’s take a look at what else it lets us rule out.

We could, for instance, make up a Law of Gravity that says bricks just naturally “prefer” to get as close to the center of the Earth as possible. In that case, though, we’d need another law — call it the Law of Levity — that states that balloons “prefer” to get as far away from the Earth’s center as they can.

The real problem with “Laws” like this is not that they appeal to the supernatural (they don’t), or that they’re self-contradictory or scientifically impossible (they’re not), it’s just that they don’t go anywhere. The “Law of Levity” only tells me how balloons work. So, every time I meet up with something new, like clouds, I’ve got to make up a new law. What I’m looking for is a law that’ll tell me how the whole world works.

It’s as if William of Ockham were saying, “While you’re at it, don’t go multiplying laws without necessity, either.”

So the Razor’s also telling us we ought to try coming up with a single law that covers bricks and balloons both — that says, for instance, they’re both attracted to the Earth, but they’re competing with each other and with air molecules in a “race to the bottom.”

That’s about as far Galileo could get us. And, no denying, it does simplify things some. We’re now down to one Law for everything on Earth. But it doesn’t go far enough: we still need individual laws for how things fall (or rise) on Mars, the Moon, and so forth. Doing away with that limitation was Newton’s genius.

But we can go even further. We can introduce concepts like “energy” and “entropy.” Now we can cover all known situations by saying that all systems tend to minimize their energy and maximize their entropy. It’s in paring away the inessentials, cutting down through all the superficialities to reach this level of ultimate simplicity, you see, that Ockham’s Razor really shines

So that’s another, and more fundamental reason why the Razor rules out the Faerie Conspiracy Hypothesis as an explanation of the Tunguska Event. As an explanation, the FCH just doesn’t go anywhere; it doesn’t tell us anything that we can use anyplace else. It’s not just that the FCH adds in lots more causes, it’s that it’s adding them in for the sole purpose of dealing with this one particular case — there’s no evidence, or need, for them in any other context. So, at bottom, the FCH goes against the grain of what we said before, about how the Razor is always on the lookout for simpler, more general laws, for causes that explain more and more phenomena, not fewer — and certainly not just one isolated instance.

What Al Jackson and Mike Ryan did doesn’t seem to me to go against Ockham’s Razor in anything like that kind of a way. In particular, they did NOT pull new entities out of thin air. Instead, they just suggested that a “runty” version of a pretty well-substantiated entity might explain something that was otherwise turning out to be pretty hard to explain.

I think Chronos and I both would agree that none of the alternative Tunguska hypotheses can be absolutely ruled out. What we’re trying to do is rationally debate the probabilities and pick the least unlikely one. Of course, even if we come to a consensus (unlikely as that might seem right now), that wouldn’t mean we’re right! The true cause could be the Schimmelhorn Effect (which won’t be discovered till 2086).

All I’m trying to say is Al and Mike were within their rights as scientists to raise another possibility. And they’d still be right to do it, even if their explanation turned out to be wrong.

Everyone with me in striking Flying Saucer reactor meltdowns and sprites off the list? Or, if you insist on keeping them, let’s at least agree to move them to the bottom. That leaves (roughly speaking):

* Asteroid/meteor
* Comet
* Mini-hole ...

All of them have their problems:

* Meteors leave debris; whatever hit Tunguska didn’t.

* Comets would go bang way too high up to account for the eyewitness accounts and the blast pattern.

* Mini-holes? There are some real problems here too — exit events and superearthquakes and such. (More about that a couple Soapboxes from now.)

No, I’m not going to pretend what I’m suggesting is bulletproof. Still and all, I think I’ve got a case to make. All’s I’m asking is that you try to keep your minds open long enough for me to lay it out.

After all, let’s not forget: go back a couple hundred years and Chronos’s strict application of Ockham’s Razor would’ve ruled out comets and meteorites, too! Rocks falling out of the sky? Ridiculous — the heavens are unchanging and eternal.

To address Chronos’ point specifically, “not explaining everything” is not the same as “explaining nothing”. Look, we know General Relativity is a darn good theory, better than anything before or since, on the macrocosmic scale. Decades of observations — deflection of light, time dilation, and energy lost from close binaries — confirm it.

(We also know it’s got to be wrong — somewhere — because it conflicts with quantum theory. Still, any rival to Relativity would have to give predictions at least as good.)

If, on the other hand, someone walked in with a marble that “fell up”, the whole magnificent Einsteinian edifice would come crashing down around our ears. No “adjustment” to Einstein will encompass that. One anti-gravity marble outweighs entire galaxies. One exception doesn’t “prove the rule” — it smashes it to smithereens.

Mind you: I’m not saying anybody’s ever seen such a marble, or ever will. All’s I’m trying to suggest is that all theories have what you might call an “elastic limit.” What I mean by that is they can’t be stretched indefinitely. The “ultra-violet catastrophe” of pre-quantum thermodynamics was a sign that said “something is wrong here!” Likewise, the Michelson-Morley experiment was a sign that something was wrong with the theory of the luminiferous aether (though it took two decades and one Einstein to figure out what).

Point is, somewhere along the way, you’ve got to stop adding more epicycles and start to question your basic assumptions. (That’s kind of what Academician Nikolai Vasil’ev, the grand old man of Russian Tunguska studies, did here.)

Has the comet/meteorite explanation for Tunguska reached that elastic limit yet? That’s up to each one of us to decide for him- or herself. But, if your answer is “maybe,” I’d at least like to be able to show you a plausible alternative.

(Incidentally, brownies and dryads and oreids and all seem like overkill to me. If you want to go with the Faerie Conspiracy Theorists, it’s a lot more likely an iron meteorite blew up high in the air over Tunguska — and then kobolds scurried on out and picked up all the pieces. Now we’re down to just one extra “cause”. William of Ockham would have been pleased.)

Yours truly,
Jack Adler

copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.

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