question parsimony

After a long hiatus, I have decided to come back to writing my opinions, linking life to nature and science, and hopefully, fostering thoughtful discussion. This reemergence has taken a while to mature. Germination began months ago with my move to California and the start of a part-time teaching job; both of which I am grateful for and proud of. During these months there have been long periods of happiness, comfort, tranquility, and confidence. I have wanted to share these times and put them into a perspective that may help others understand there own journey and to recognize the fruits of their efforts. And yet, recently I am preoccupied. Recently is a lie. I have been preoccupied for a while.

It seems the diving back in is best accomplished through the words of someone more talented than I. Someone who hits at the theme of this post without meaning to. “The practice which obtains amongst the Americans of fixing the standard of their judgement in themselves alone, leads them to other habits of mind. As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot comprehend…As it is on their own testimony that they are accustomed to rely, they like to discern the object which engages their attention with extreme clearness; they therefore strip off as much as possible all that covers it, they rid themselves of whatever separates them from it, they remove whatever conceals it from sight, in order to view it more closely and in the broad light of day. This disposition of the mind soon leads them to contemn forms, which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth.”

These are the words of Alexis de Tocqueville. They are found in the first pages of the second volume of Democracy in America (1840). de Tocqueville was the keenest of observers. A socio-political thinker ahead of his time and brave enough to delve deep into the youthful American democracy. When I read the words above I was struck by the parallels of living within a newly minted political environment and the quest for scientific understanding.

Those of you who are scientists are aware of the application and applicability of parsimony. For those of you not familiar with this concept, it simply means explaining what you see in the simplest terms and with the fewest assumptions. You may know the idea under the name Occam’s Razor. It’s use in science is justified as a means to build a solid scaffold upon which to describe the world around us. An example of this might look like the following: You go outside early in the morning with the intent of getting in your car to drive to work. You put the keys in the ignition, turn the switch a quarter turn, and nothing happens. Frustrated, you start flipping the mental pages of all the auto repair manuals you have ever read and decide that the starter solenoid has become fouled as a result of the lightning strike that hit your garage last night. You also suspect that such an occurrence is due to inappropriate placement of the starter motor in the car. After a quick call to work, letting them know you will be out for the day, you fire up your MIG welder, and get to work reengineering your car. Now, while all this may be the cause of your angst, the reality might have been that you didn’t turn the keys far enough (you were very tired after staying up all night reading the new issue of Scientific American) or the battery may simply be dead. Regardless, you chose the more complicated approach, with a lot of assumptions, without first testing the easiest fix.

Describing nature is similar to this. We may intuitively know that the simplest explanation for a phenomena is not the full explanation, yet we need to be careful not to jump into the overt complexity without first testing the simple options. The catch with this line of thinking is that we can get stuck in answers based on the simple solutions. If you end up with positive results for an experiment, based on the simplest variables, we might just move on and decide that no further digging is necessary. I have had to catch myself a number of times when analyzing my ant data. I find something that affects species extinctions and am apt to say, eh voila! Publishable paper! Perhaps, but could something else further explain what I see? Some interaction between variables? Something I hadn’t thought about at all? Perhaps I need to go back to the field and set up a new experiment to measure one more aspect of the environment. And this in my mind is one of the wonderful aspects of science; we seek the simple, yet we test the complex.

de Tocqueville’s words above hint at a similar conundrum, and in light of the recent election, I dare say we need to be leery of the simplest explanations, and indeed delve into the more complex. As a wise professor once reminded us, parsimony is a human construct.  I interpret this reminder, and de Tocqueville’s observations, in terms of an adjustment on the old saying “If it seems too good to be true, then it is.” My new version is, “If things seem too simple, they most assuredly are not.” While I want to believe the errant tweets and misguided policy recommendations of our new president-elect are simple buffoonery, my curious side is screaming don’t buy it. Something feels sinister here, something too simplistically distracting. We are in a holding pattern now and a lot of us, myself included, are just a little on edge about the future. Our job right now is to be good scientists for community, to give where we can, to dig where we need to,  to be diligent when gathering data, to evaluate our sources, and to publish our results.


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