Skip to content

The “law of parsimony”?

Speaking of parsimony, I came across the following quotation from Commentary magazine (page 80 in the December 2004 issue):

The law of parsimony tells us that when there are alternative explanations of events, the simplest one is likely to be correct.

Commentary is a serious magazine, and this quotation (which I disagree with!) makes me wonder whether this idea of a scientific “law” is common among serious literary and political critics.

The article continues,

The most parsimonious explanation for Jayson Blair’s offenses resides in the Times’s passionate commitment to diversity and affirmative action–i.e., preferences. In trying to understand how an inexperienced, incompetent, and irresponsible young black man could be hired and steadily advanced, no other explanation makes sense.

The context of the quote doesn’t really matter for my point here, which is that it seems that “the law of parsimony” is being used to back up a naive view of causality, in which an event can have only one “explanation.”

Partisan politics?

Just to be clear, I am not advancing any particular views of my own on Jayson Blair or the New York Times or whatever; whatever opinions I may have on the matter are not at all well-informaed.

The partisan political angle on this, if any, is complicated, since political rhetoric over the years has been full of appeals–from many political directions–to the inexorable Laws of history, the Law of unintended consequences, and so forth.


  1. Boris S. says:

    Point well taken, Andy. Even serious journals continuously commit errors like these. As these journals are not scholarly, though, can we fairly ascribe some of these errors to rhetorical devices meant to dramatize narrative?

    Surely we don't want the soporific writing standards of academic writing to seep into the larger society. Though some modesty on the part of the latter would seem to be apropos.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    It seems everyone has their own definition of "parsimonious". Why is Jayson Blair's age, race, or level of experience relevant. Mike Barnicle pulled the same crap and he was much older, much whiter and worked for decades. Parsimony requires no more than enough impetus to make stuff up and some mechanism for not getting caught and canned.