Monday, December 1, 2008

Philosophy: Glitch's Razor

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I violated one of my strongest personal principles in my Friday post on the Fiscal Update Crisis in Canada. I tried to create a case for a conspiracy within the Conservative Party. This was a violation of what for lack of a better name I'll call Glitch's Razor: Never blame on a conspiracy what can be blamed on simple incompetence.

Pretty much everyone has heard of Occam's Razor. While more formal treatments and even Wikipedia explain how the modern interpretation of it is not strictly accurate, in modern North American culture it can be summarized as "the simplest explanation is usually the best." Sometimes it is even equated with the KISS principle--Keep It Simple, Stupid. I personally always liked the wording that is apparently common in medical school, "When you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras."

Glitch's Razor is a corollary of Occam's Razor, postulating that incompetence is a simpler explanation for a low-probability event than a conspiracy, and thus in applying Occam's Razor, the explanation involving incompetence would be expected to be correct. Even under more rigorous views of Occam's Razor, Glitch's Razor would still follow, as it is about ignoring superfluous portions of an explanation (the conspiracy, which by definition involves at least a small group people if not a large one) when the core explanation (incompetence, often of only one person or perhaps a small group of people) is all that is needed.

It seems such an obvious corollary that I am surprised it does not appear to have ever been named. Clearly, thousands of people have had the same thought, and the similar wording "never suspect conspiracy when incompetence can achieve the same result" appears in many counter-arguments to conspiracy theories. If anyone knows of a citation of the origin of this thought, I will be happy to quit calling it Glitch's Razor, as it is far from my original thought.

As a principle, Glitch's Razor applies throughout one's life. In a number of work situations, I have used it to accurately predict the behavior of remote management. Once, my immediate supervisor was convinced that he was to be fired because of a string of events that he took as directed at him personally. Applying Glitch's Razor, I predicted that the events just showed a lack of understanding by the remote management team--basically, incompetence in managing our site, not a conspiracy against the site or my boss in particular. While I was right on that point, the same incompetence detected by Glitch's Razor eventually caused the whole site to be closed in an ill-advised manner.

Do you think your bank is out to get you? More likely, their programmers didn't test their own software adequately. Do you think the government is trying to bankrupt you? More likely, they can't understand and administer their own taxation laws. Was there a conspiracy to make your train late? More likely, a maintenance or operations employee didn't perform some task, and the train was delayed enroute as a result.

Obviously, Glitch's Razor applies in politics, even in Machiavellian politics. Even people that are trying to put something past their rivals or the populace can mess things up. Perhaps the best recent example occurred in Washington state, where professional initiative organizer Tim Eyman simply wrote Initiative 985 poorly. There was no big, successful conspiracy ganging up on him--people just didn't like the initiative.

So that brings us back to what has happened since last Thursday in Canadian politics. It is entirely possible that the Conservative over-reaching in the Financial Update was strictly incompetence by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He could have misjudged the reaction that would come from the opposition parties, in particular the Liberal Party. By Glitch's Razor, the possibility of incompetence is more likely than a conspiracy within the Conservative Party.

I still have a hard time believing that Stephen Harper is actually that incompetent. But, in the absence of evidence for an alternate narrative, it is an explanation that probably should be accepted, at least if I really believe in my own Razor.

1 comment:

CWD said...

I think there may be an even simpler explanation for I-985's defeat. When asked to decide on a complicated ballot measure with limited information, voters tend to vote no.

In fact, late undecideds I-985 (about 2/3 of the state electorate) broke against the initiative at almost the exact same rate as undecideds broke against I-1000 and Prop 1, also on the ballot in November. It's just that there were way more late undecideds for I-985 than there were for the other 2.

Having worked hard against I-985, I would love to be able to take some credit for its defeat. The opposition did its very best to convince voters that it was dumb public policy.

But I think the simplest explanation for the defeat is probably the most accurate: voters were weakly attached to the issue, and didn't have much information about it--and those sorts of voters tend to vote "no," regardless of the actual content of the ballot language. So as powerful as Glitch's razor may be, I think Occam's may suffice in this case.