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.

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