The Hottest New Thing: Is It Actually a “Thing?” (The Mismeasure of Candidates, Part 4)

Occam’s Razor is a basic logical principle: The simplest explanation for a given phenomenon tends to be the correct one. Complex explanations require more assumptions to be made, thereby increasing the likelihood that some of those assumptions will be false. It is not a coincidence that the most outlandish and unlikely theories (Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, faked moon landings, secret societies surreptitiously running entire governments) are so complex—they require a host of unlikely assumptions in order to even be logically possible.

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The Razor perhaps most famously shaped the major works of eminent physicists such as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, but it can also be described in formal mathematical terms such as the Theory of Inductive Inference. The far-reaching impact of these scientific contributions is difficult to fathom. Let’s just say that the world we know would be a very different place without them. So what’s the catch?

The catch is that our desire to take the complex world around us and reduce it to simple and easy-to-understand terms can motivate us toward serious logical errors. The work of Charles Spearman provides a perfect example. Spearman was a brilliant psychologist who invented a slew of statistical techniques that now pervade almost every aspect of science. Perhaps most notable among these was Factor Analysis, a technique that allows a large set of observations to be reduced to the basic underlying factors. Some cool examples include analyzing the entire dictionary to see what types of words exist, or further, what types of emotions exist in a given language, or how many larger and more universal personality traits are common to people (or other animals) in general. Fascinating.

Spearman’s story doesn’t end there, however. You have to understand that he developed the technique as a means of analyzing the results of a wide variety of mental tests (IQ, intelligence, cognitive ability, whatever you want to call it). His analysis ultimately revealed a single underlying factor; that is, people who score high on one test are very likely to score high on any other test. From this analysis came the pervasive notion that human intelligence can be expressed as a single number, a number that Spearman called g as a shorthand for General Intelligence. This is what modern IQ tests measure.

If you haven’t yet caught the error, don’t worry. You soon will. In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould describes another set of data that could lead us to a similar conclusion: The statistical relationships between his age, the population of Mexico, the price of Swiss cheese, the weight of his pet turtle, and the expansion of the known universe. All of these things are highly related due to the passage of time, and a Factor Analysis is likely to reduce to this single factor: Time. Arguing that a given mental test directly measures g is not very different from arguing that the price of Swiss cheese is an adequate replacement for a clock.

But that is only mathematical. Spearman did not stop there. He went on to characterize intelligence as an entity. An actual thing. Hopefully, it is obvious to most readers that intelligence is not a “thing” in the same sense that you or the device that you are reading this on are “things.” Real physical things. That actually exist. No one to date (scientist or otherwise) has actually documented the existence of a “g” or an “intelligence.” There is not actually such a thing to be observed, as far as anyone knows. To confabulate such an existence simply through mathematics or logic is a grievous error.

This is only one example of the seductive allure of reductionism. We can take this back to physics, the supposed holy grail of enlightenment. Dark Matter. String Theory. These things may or may not even exist. To assume that they do, without any evidence, is simply foolish. Politics are rife with slogans that lack any manner of precise definition. The business world is often criticized for “buzzwords” that may or may not mean anything whatsoever.

The bottom line? There are no easy answers. If someone offers a great solution, look for a precise definition and some actual evidence of its existence. Otherwise, you could end up using Swiss cheese to organize your schedule.

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