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  • Occam’s Razor and Flying Bombs May 20, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Beachcombing always feels niggles of annoyance when Occam’s Razor comes up. It is not that he dislikes the principle of succinctness per se: indeed, most of the time this principle is a useful brake on our imagination. After all, if Beachcombing opens his door in Little Snoring and finds no tiger then it is surely most ‘natural’ to assume that there are no tigers in the surroundings. How silly and unnecessarily complicated to suppose that tigers are frightened of Beach and that they flee whenever they hear his lock turning.

    But life is sometimes complicated. And Beachcombing has, over the years, kept a small file of examples from history of events when Occam’s Razor brings the wrong conclusion. Again, this is not to say that Occam’s Razor is wrong or flawed. Rather, it is a gentle reminder that the principle is not the universal panacea that some OR junkies would like.

    Beachcombing’s favourite example of this is an incident that took place on the night of 18/19 June 1944 on Monck Street London (485).

    On that night a German flying bomb crashed just outside the Air Intelligence building there. This was a close call for a key British institution. But the alarm of the personnel grew exponentially as they began to examine the wreckage. For, there, amid the debris, they found not only the familiar parts of a flying bomb, but also many pieces of German electronic gear.

    The ‘natural’ conclusion?

    The Germans, who were far ahead of the British in this field, had not only developed a flying missile – which was terrifying London in the summer of 1944 – but also a guided missile system that could bring the flying bomb down exactly where the German High Command wanted.

    After all, that a rocket lands almost bang on top of the Air Intelligence building could be chance – bombs have to land somewhere – but that sophisticated German electric gear is found in the blast admitted only one ‘simple’ deduction.

    Of course, we know that it would take the superpowers another thirty years to get anywhere near this level of accuracy: Beachcombing thinks of surgical US strikes in Sarajevo with buildings – including the Chinese embassy (ahem) – ‘neatly’ taken out by cruise missiles.

    So what was the explanation?

    In the days after D-Day three tons of electronic gear and other high tech equipment had been found at various German sites on the continent and had been rushed back to London in a small truck where said equipment could be properly ‘debriefed’. This truck had arrived in London very late on 18 June and the driver finding the Air Intelligence building closed had parked his truck on the pavement outside.

    Then, that very night, a German flying bomb happened to land on top of the truck blowing it and its contents to smithereens and mixing the captured German material with the wreckage of the flying bomb.

    The panicked British staff came to understandably erroneous conclusions, conclusions that were only abandoned when it was realised that ‘one of our trucks’ had gone missing.

    Beachcombing would love other examples of the failure of OR: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    22 May 2011:  JK writes in ‘Like you, I’m not one to worship at the altar of razors. I recall studying Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and encountered the twin forces of Occam’s Razor and ‘common sense’. Some people deduced that the Sun was much closer than the Moon due to the Sun’s heat. My lecturers instructed me that common sense may be common but frequently nonsensical. Likewise, using the OR approach can be similarly misleading.’ Another post on common sense? Thanks JK!!

    24 May 2011: Ray writes in ‘Enjoyed your post, as I, too, have collected instances where OR falls short. My favorite: towards the end of the 19th century, scientists were confused by the phenomenon of ‘black body radiation’. As it turned out, the explanation for this turned out not to be the simplest but the most complex one—revolutionizing science in the process: quantum mechanics’. Thanks Ray!