To Apply or Not-to-Apply “Occam’s Razor,” a Problem-Solving Tool

Having been an early avid mystery reader, initially I thought there was a strong case for application of this principle to genealogical research, but that’s long since changed. Life experience has taught me to see there are too many variables that occur, working together to bring each into the path of destiny, fore-ordained mission, or purpose, or whatever you want to call it. I concur with Mark Twain’s coined saying, “Truth is [often] stranger than fiction.”

We hopefully all know (& have experienced) how God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform, and so sometimes, although the path from A to B is usually direct, sometimes it can be via a very convoluted journey, not as the proverbial crow flies. We’ve heard the term & seen the examples of degrees-of-separation, how things can be related and superficially linked via distant connections. That being said, in crime-solving, or solving a mystery of any kind, there is a problem-solving tool that is sometimes, even often, accurately utilized. Many times it is very useful. It is termed, “Occam’s Razor.”

When I was a teen I enjoyed reading fictional mysteries, particularly one series which introduced me to this concept. Its cases were solved by fictional characters Jupiter Jones & friends Peter Crenshaw & Bob Andrews in “Three Investigators” or its earlier title “Alfred Hitchcock & the Three Investigators,” by Robert Arthur Jr. & successors (1964-1987). At (, the recurring plot is summarized thus: “Most mysteries were solved by Jupiter Jones, a supreme logician who implicitly used the Occam’s Razor principle: that the simplest and most rational explanation should be preferred to an explanation which requires additional assumptions.”

So what is “Occam’s Razor” & how is it applied specifically to genealogy?

According to a math website (, data updated 1997 by Sugihara Hiroshi, original by Phil Gibbs 1996: “Occam’s (or Ockham’s) razor is a [problem-solving] principle attributed to the 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. Ockham was the village in the English county of Surrey where he was born. The principle states that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Sometimes it is quoted in one of its original Latin forms to give it an air of authenticity:

“Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate”
“Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora” …

In application to mathematics & physics (with application also perhaps to genealogy detectives), this math website explains: “The most useful statement of the principle for scientists is: “when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.”

At (, “How Occam’s Razor Works” by Josh Clark: he explains: “You’ve probably heard it before: The simplest explanation is usually the right one. Detectives use it to deduce who’s the likeliest suspect in a murder case — you know, the butler did it. Doctors ­use it to determine the illness behind a set of symptoms. This line of reasoning is called Occam’s razor. It’s used in a wide variety of ways throughout the world as a means to slice through a problem or situation and eliminate unnecessary elements. But what we call the razor is a little different than what its author originally wrote. There are two parts that are considered the basis of Occam’s razor, and they were originally written in Latin… [meaning] “It’s elementary. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. [—] Or is it?” …

According to the respected encyclopedia ( “Occam’s razor, also spelled Ockham’s razor, also called law of economy or law of parsimony, [is a] principle stated by the Scholastic philosopher William of Ockham (1285–1347/49) that pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” The principle gives precedence to simplicity: [that] of two competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred. The principle is also expressed as “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” The principle was, in fact, invoked [earlier,] before Ockham by Durandus of Saint-Pourçain, a French Dominican theologian and philosopher of dubious orthodoxy, who used it … (100 of 320 words)”

And back to Wikipedia’s summary (’s_razor):
“Occam’s razor (also written as Ockham’s razor, and lex parsimoniae in Latin, which means law of parsimony) is a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian. The principle can be interpreted as stating [“]Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. The application of the principle can be used to shift the burden of proof in a discussion. However, Alan Baker, who suggests this in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is careful to point out that his suggestion should not be taken generally, but only as it applies in a particular context, that is: philosophers who argue in opposition to metaphysical theories that involve any kind of probably “superfluous ontological apparatus.”[a] Baker then notes that principles, including Occam’s razor, are often expressed in a way that is unclear regarding which facet of “simplicity”—parsimony or elegance—the principle refers to, and that in a hypothetical formulation the facets of simplicity may work in different directions: a simpler description may refer to a more complex hypothesis, and a more complex description may refer to a simpler hypothesis.[b] Solomonoff’s theory of inductive inference is a mathematically formalized Occam’s razor:[2][3][4][5][6][7] shorter computable theories have more weight when calculating the probability of the next observation, using all computable theories that perfectly describe previous observations. In science, Occam’s razor is used as a heuristic technique (discovery tool) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models, rather than as an arbiter between published models.[8][9] In the scientific method, Occam’s razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the preference for simplicity in the scientific method is based on the falsifiability criterion. For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there may be an extremely large, perhaps even incomprehensible, number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable.[1][10][11]”

On another website ( Gavin Kistner posted on 13 Dec 1999: “Occam’s Razor: Do you really know what it means? In [the movie,] Contact, Dr. Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) is asked “Do you know what Occam’s Razor is?” to which she responds (roughly): “Yes, it’s the scientific principle that, all things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the right one.” No it isn’t! It’s not it’s not! I keep hearing people refer to Occam’s Razor (also, I discovered, acceptably spelled “Ockham’s Razor”) as though it means that simpler explanations tend to be right. Occam’s Razor is this: “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything” – William of Ockham. [UPDATE: The page from which I got that quote has rather liberally translated the original. I’m now finding a variety of english translations for the original latin “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate”, such as “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily,” and “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” Some other night I’ll do a consensus search and find the most accurate translation.] Occam’s Razor, in my [Gavin Kistner’s] words, means that if you have a working explanation for something, don’t go making it more complicated. Which, yes, means that the first hypothesis you try is the simplest one…but that doesn’t mean that it’s RIGHT because it’s simple, it just means that it’s the best explanation to try until it doesn’t work. For example, say you plot three points on a graph, all in a line, and are trying to come up with a function which will describe the rest of the points you plot. There are an infinite number of equations which will pass through those three points, but the best assumption to make is that all the points will lie along the line. Occam’s razor says so. What Occam doesn’t say is that choice is the “right” one just because it’s simple. If you plot a fourth point which doesn’t end up in line with the other three, is there egg on Occam’s face? …”

Finally, My Own Summary Disclaimer: Occam’s Razor, then, must be used with caution in the examination of evidence, because sometimes, for example, in a jump-to-conclusion & rush-to-judgement, parents or spouses or butlers are wrongly accused of crimes, viewed as being ones with quickest access & by familiarity also ones with quickest supposed motive. Several cases come to mind. However, on the converse, it is also true, at least in operating a motor vehicle, that usually, or at least often, the least circuitous route is the one taken. My Point: Don’t make too many jumps in your jumps-to-conclusion in building your wall of evidence!

Interestingly enough, just now, when wondering if other genealogists use this theory, I found this post by another genealogist, Timothy Andrew Barber “Andy” ( he wrote: “As I was contemplating a name for this genealogy website, for whatever reason, I was reading an article on Occam’s Razor. For those who don’t know about Occam’s Razor, here you go: In it’s simplest form, Occam’s Razor is a problem solving principle that, basically, says… all things being equal, the simplest answer is the best. Upon reading further, however, I found that a more concise definition is… “Among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”” [Notice his point: “among competing hypotheses that predict equally well”—in genealogical research that’s calling for a lot; how many hypothetical scenarios can be equated as bearing truly “equal” weight?

BOTTOM LINE: My question is this, the simplest answer being the “best” or preferred one, is it always the TRUE one? I have to concur with Gavin Kistner cited above, and with the spirit & fact expressed in the song lyrics: “God bless the broken road that led me straight to you,” (“Broken Road” performed by RASCAL FLATS, written by songwriters: JEFF HANNA, MARCUS HUMMON, ROBERT E. BOYD; Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group), because real life (like a soap opera) proves it is not necessarily so! Circumstances in real life are often circuitous! So, for whatever it’s worth, I place it here for your careful consideration. Occam’s Razor, may, or, may not be helpful, depending on the truth! What did God do in orchestrating circumstances in the lives of the ancestors you are researching?

Suggested Reading for your elucidation & enjoyment: and

Citation: By researcher, Rose H. Bonnell, 3 February 2016 & 2 Sep 2016.
Provenance & Permissions: This blog post is the Intellectual Property of Rose Herndon Bonnell (
com/170) permission is granted for use when quoted in full & properly cited.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: