Occam’s broom was first proposed by South African microbiologist Sidney Brenner who proposed that inconvenient facts that do not fit into someone’s hypothesis or serve their agenda are swept aside or hidden. Occam’s broom is a principle stating that inconvenient facts are hidden or obscured to draw important conclusions or argue points.
Understanding Occam’s broom
Brenner’s idea was supported by author Daniel Dennett in his 2013 book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.
Dennett noted that the practice was common among intellectual but dishonest advocates of one theory or another and was especially insidious when directed toward a general public who may not know to tell fact from fiction.
In addition, Dennett said that:
“conspiracy theorists are masters of Occam’s Broom, and an instructive exercise on the Internet is to look up a new conspiracy theory, to see if you (a nonexpert on the topic) can find the flaws, before looking elsewhere on the web for the expert rebuttals.”
Occam’s brook in the context of science
While Dennett linked the idea with conspiracy theorists, it should be noted that as a scientist, Brenner coined the term to describe the tendency of his peers to overlook data not in support of their arguments.
In a 2009 article in the Journal of Biology, Miranda Robertson noted that despite its negative connotations, Occam’s broom did have a place in science and was in fact necessary for scientific progress.
Robertson noted that ”Biology, as many have pointed out, is untidy and accidental, and it is arguably unlikely that all the facts can be accounted for early in the investigation of any given biological phenomenon.”
She then went on to discuss Occam’s broom in the context of Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection and Mendel’s discovery of the fundamental laws of inheritance.
If Darwin had “swept away” variation in the ratios of inheritance he recorded (as Mendel did), then many believe Darwin would have discovered the laws of inheritance before his counterpart.
Other examples of Occam’s broom
Negative economic outlooks could also be considered an example of Occam’s broom.
When the media report on a company’s debt or impending bankruptcy, they only focus on the liabilities of the balance sheet and not its assets.
In a similar vein, those who want to make predictions about a country’s debt obligations should not neglect its earning power, collective knowledge, innovation capacity, and capital base.
In the United States, for example, households held over $113 trillion in assets in 2018 – equivalent to five times the amount of goods and services produced annually.
- Occam’s broom is a principle stating that inconvenient facts are “swept under the carpet” to draw important conclusions or make counterarguments.
- Occam’s broom is common among intellectual but dishonest advocates of one theory or another. Some may push conspiracy theories, while academics such as scientists may also discount facts that do not support their hypotheses.
- Negative economic outlooks could also be considered an example of Occam’s broom. When media organizations make doom forecasts about a country’s economy, they may avoid considering its asset base and potential for growth and innovation.
Occam’s Broom vs. Occam’s Razor
Whereas Occam’s Razor is a heuristic that helps decide in a complex scenario by going for the most straightforward solution as the best one.
Occam’s Broom is more of a bias, in which intellectuals fall as a confirmation bias, where these people tend to select facts that fit into their narratives.
Thus, reinforcing their hypotheses. This is a negative feedback loop mechanism, where someone selects and cherry-picks the facts that most fit into the outcome she/he has in mind.