Cleanliness is next to Parsimony(ness)


Here’s a warning to users: if Ockham’s razor is dirty & rusted it can present aspiring epistemic barbers with severe problems. Albert Einstein, who may or may not have needed a trim himself, once cautioned that “(…) the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” This is frequently paraphrased as “make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Affectionately referred to as the clap (which wikipedia wikinforms me derives from the French clapier*, meaning brothel—and not, as I suspected, from the ironic clapping of close friends, accompanying comforting words like “congratulations asshole, you’ve done it again”), Gonorrhea is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Its sister disease, syphilis, is caused by the much easier to spell bacterium Treponema pallidum. Both bugs were identified in the golden age of bacteriology, the former in 1879, the latter in 1905.

Prior to the advent of the germ theory of disease, and of the technology required to identify and culture bacteria, Scottish surgeon John Hunter took the Razor to the nether regions of medicine and postulated that both diseases had a common cause, an epistemic “Brazilian” that would have disagreeable consequences. The idea itself is not as far fetched as it may sound to modern ears—after all, co-infections must have been common, a brothel two-for-one special of a particularly unpleasant sort. Hunter hit on a gloriously parsimonious solution: in his Treatise on the Venereal Disease, the esteemed (Fellow of the Royal Society) physician proposed that both diseases had the same origin. To prove it, he inoculated himself with a gonorrhea dipped needle.

Initially it appeared that our Patron, Brother William, smiled his beatific Franciscan grin over the good doctor’s work, which had the anticipated outcome. Syphilis and gonorrhea manifested themselves—possibly the first time since the Aztecs sent their pet treponeme to the Old World by way of “thank you for massacring us” that anyone was glad to examine their johnson and discover a chancral bloom. Sadly, and painfully, the Razor played a cruel joke on John Hunter. The needle used in the experiment, purposely slathered in clap was also also inadvertently carrying the syphilis bacterium**.

The lesson, Ockhamites, is of course controls, controls, controls. And that Einstein thing.

* Classical English literature often refers to gonorrhea and/or syphilis as “the French disease”.
** In Hunter’s defense, some historians dispute the veracity of this story.

Damn you, Ava!

Say it with me kids: correlation does not imply causation. Now repeat that 10 times.

I’ll wait.

And if you still haven’t got the message, maybe you can ask Ava to repeat it for you. If she isn’t too busy causing housing bubbles, that is. Oh you hadn’t heard about that?

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 2.18.58 PM

For more magnificent correlations (which do not imply causation! Although you never know! And at the very least it causes suspicion!), check out this collection of graphs in businessweek.

Hat tip: Marina Fridman


Please welcome our plant overlords

Did you know that us humans, fancy consciousness and all, are actually mere minions of a select number of other species? And no, this is not about a discovery of alien life: these are species that live among us on planet Earth, and have done so for as long as we can remember. These species enslaved us some 10 000 years ago, sank their metaphorical teeth in our flesh, and never let go. These are our crops.

At least, so says gardener and writer Michael Pollen Pollan (what’s in a name?) in his TED talk, where he chronicles the development of his idea starting at his first revelation — when he was gardening together with a bee, and realized that just like the bee was doing the bidding of some angiosperm master, he himself was positively tuber-whipped by the potatoes he was “voluntarily” planting.

Watch it:

Here’s the kicker: a similar, a very similar talk was given at BAHfest. Not about crops, but about livestock, and about how selective pressures make everything taste like chicken, but still. As soon as the videos are up I will link to them here, and I for one can’t wait to compare the two presentations.

In the meantime, please excuse me while I go tend to my basil.

Thanks to Nico Bonacchi for the tip!


Effects of Sexual Activity on Beard Growth (and Critical Thinking)

Scientists are critical, dedicated, and passionate about their work. The author of “Effects of Sexual Activity on Beard Growth in Man” was definitely two of these.

In 1970 a scientist (who chose to publish his findings anonymously) observed that after spending multiple days working in isolation, his beard growth accelerated in the days before returning back to civilization. The reason seemed obvious: in anticipation of resuming sexual activity, his beard was growing faster.

Not content with a single observation, Anon decided to pursue these findings. For a period of 10 weeks, he limited his ‘sexual relations’ to weekends only. Lo and behold: his beard growth on Friday was through the roof!

During this period, Anon was also careful to record his levels of tension, anxiety, nervousness, mental fatigue, alcohol consumption and libido. Interestingly, each of these factors was correlated with an increase in beard growth. Except for libido. Nevertheless, our anonymous author concludes that the most plausible explanation was that his beard was growing faster in anticipation of the oncoming weekend’s promiscuous activities.

We cannot question the dedication and passion Anon showed in his work. Clearly we need to dedicate more time to investigating the nature of autonomous beard lust.

(Pro-tip: For those of you who do not have access to Nature publications from 1970: The first page of the article is available for free via Nature’s “Readcube”, and the second page only has a 5 line conclusion and references. You can read almost the entire article and figures for free!)



Occam’s Beard celebrates Brother William of Ockham (1287/8 — 1347), a Franciscan friar and noted medieval scholar to whom the aphorism “entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate” is attributed. Loosely translated as “do not multiply entities without necessity”, it is perhaps best understood by sitting down and drawing your own Rube Goldberg contraption, and then setting that sketch on fire. Over the next few months we’ll examine how this advice applies to modern science, how it fits classical physics like spandex on a superhero, and how it all too often fits modern biology like spandex on Napoleon Dynamite. Because our namesake followed the patron saint of animal behavioural neuroscience, Francis of Assisi, that field may turn out to be over-represented in our blog.

Ockham’s principle is most often referred to as his razor, following a lost, exalted, Franciscan tradition of epistemological utensils (most, like Gaufredi’s Floss—originally made from Gaufredi’s metaphoric sheep tripe—and Caperolo’s oddly prophetic spork, survive in name only, in secondary sources of the French and Scottish Enlightenment). Portraits of Brother William suggest that he applied his razor not just to his beard, but to most of his head, a practice that he sought to justify according to logical principles. Physiology and medicine in Ockham’s era followed a tradition that began with Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC), was passed down through Galen (129 — 199(?) AD), and was finally received through Avicenna, having been, like so much of the Western Canon, preserved by Islamic scribes. The end results of this relay race of knowledge were centuries of blood letting and explosive growth in the leech breeding industry.

Humorism was to a great extent the theoretical foundation of this medical practice. It held that most human health and disease could be explained by the flux and ratios of four bodily fluids (“humors”), yellow bile, phlegm, black bile and blood. An imbalance of humors (dyscrasia) caused illness, and a balance of humors (eucrasia) was the key to a long and healthy life. Humorism, like Lamarck’s giraffe, is easy to mock today, but we should remember that when Hippocrates introduced the idea, it inaugurate the quest for natural causes** in medicine. Ockham, a proto-researcher (that he was summoned to Avignon* to answer charges of heresy testifies to his intellectual rigor), applied his Razor to humorism, the reigning Aristotelian paradigm, and Franciscan grooming habits.

Aristotle, and hence medieval scholastics, held that the heart, not the brain, was the seat of the soul. Ockham speculated that extensive cranial pilosity drew vital humors away from the heart and towards the brain, thereby reducing logical faculties. Thus, Brother William suggested that Franciscan shaving was in part responsible for the Order’s impressive theological erudition. Over the centuries, this idea was thrown into the dustbin of history, lying atop Ptolemaic cosmology, tucked neatly under the efficient market cult. Keen readers will, however, easily spot in this heretical idea the seeds of the expensive tissue hypothesis. The current view of energy budgets in the human body is that two tissues, the brain and the intestine, consume an outsized portion of available glucose, the body’s main immediate fuel source. Biochemist Otto von Glockenspiel, of Fredonia University, in his later, more speculative works published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), repeatedly suggested that BS, an orphan receptor in the insulin receptor superfamily, and its ligand Krokof would regulate carbohydrate trafficking between capillary follicles and the carotid and vertebral arteries which, as any schoolchild knows, feed the brain. Thus, Krokof/BS would alternately shunt energy between hair (and beard) growth and cerebral function, providing a molecular basis for Occam’s Beard. This biochemical switch awaits detailed study, and holds great promise for hirsute dimwits both within and without the Tea Party or PSD.

To this day, almost one millennium later, no experimental evidence has directly contradicted Ockham’s Beard energy postulate.


* The Papacy at this point had fled Rome, leading to a series of Popes and Antipopes known as the Western Schism, that was not healed until 1418, when the Pope and the Antipope were in the same room. Subsequent to the emission of gamma rays, positrons and neutrinos the unified papacy returned to the Eternal City.

** Definition may vary according to user. Look up “Theodric of York, Medieval Barber
when you have a moment.

yes, we have a blog

While gearing up for the main event, we plan to entertain you on this blog with the wildest theories out there. Do feel free to give us a hand, and send us any published science you find that you suspect is up our alley, from Occam’s five o’clock shadow to the Aquatic Ape theory.

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