Tag Archives: Hanlon’s razor

How can a dead Greek and a medieval monk help care workers?

Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher. He used questions to help people reach new insights or knowledge. Each question moved them a little closer to solving their problems. The technique takes a bit of practice but it’s not rocket science.

Socratic questions follow a fairly simple pattern and just a handful of rules (see the infographic below)

Socratic questions meme

It’s very simple in theory but it does take practice to perfect.

It’s always better for a person to see the truth for themselves than to be told what to believe by someone else. Socratic technique helps people to draw their own conclusions.

Occam’s razor

William of Occam was a monk who lived in the 14th Century. He suggested that:

If one thing is true then other things should also be true.

For example, if it is true that the man next door sings louder than the sound of a jet aircraft taking off then it should also be true that we can hear him from our sitting room. If this second statement (that we can hear him) is false then the first statement (louder than a jet) must also be false. The razor ‘cuts away’ errors in thinking to help us understand the truth of the situation.

Another way to use Occam’s Razor is to consider the simplest explanation. The simplest answer isn’t always the right one but Occam’s razor does give us a neat way to approach problems.

For example, if one theory suggests that water pushes a water wheel and another suggests that the water wheel is actually pulled around by unseen ghostly hands then the simplest explanation is that the force of water is what makes the wheel move. Both theories have the same outcome – the wheel turns – but one involves a whole new set of circumstances (ghosts obsessed with mechanics) whereas the other provides a perfectly adequate explanation on its own. If we go with the ghostly hands explanation we must also explain where the ghosts come from and why on earth they’d be interested in water wheels.

Ockham’s razor would dismiss ghostly hands and lead us to the far simpler explanation that the force of the river turns the wheel. Only if the simplest theory turns out to be wrong should we start to think about ghosts with a water fetish!

Hanlon’s razor

The other ‘Razor’ rule, ‘Hanlon’s razor’ is similar. It’s a way of keeping perspective when things don’t turn out as we’d like them to. It’s used to ‘cut away’ knee-jerk assumptions about other peoples’ motives. Hanlon’s razor says…

Don’t assume malice when incompetence will do

To put it another way – the fact that my actions hurt you could just as easily be the result of my stupidity than a desire to cause you pain. I might not have meant you any harm. Realistically most people don’t go around dreaming up ways to hurt others – they have too much to do just sorting out their own problems. There are exceptions to that but malice isn’t the norm. Indifference and incompetence are usually far more likely.

By combining Socratic technique with the basic principles of Occam’s and Hanlon’s razors we have a perfect blueprint for therapeutic conversations. And all we need to do is ask the right questions.

  • If this is true would this also be true?
  • What is the evidence?
  • How does this evidence fit with this assumption?
  • What other explanations might there be?
  • Which explanation is the simplest (and most likely to be true)?

It’s much more effective to ask questions than to tell another person what to think. Let them come to their own conclusions. That way they just might believe them.