Can We Talk About Reasoning and Razors?

A lot of pundits are working hard to identify the method to President Trump’s apparent madness. What is the purpose of the apparent lies? Why the complete contradictions? Why the fixations on trivial issues? Is it some nefarious scheme, some clever strategy, some secret plan?


You know Occam’s Razor, probably, the problem-solving principle that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. It’s attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian. It’s very useful in dealing with conspiracy nuts, who develop absurdly complex claims when there is a competing, simpler and straightforward alternative. “Chem trails” come to mind.

WC wants to introduce you to Hanlon’s Razor. It’s another principle for evaluating claims. It’s usually stated as,”Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The British equivalent is “Cock-up before conspiracy.”

As a way of analyzing Trump’s behavior, Hanlon’s Razor is very useful. He attacks the NFL players, among the most popular athletes in America. Clever political strategy or self-destructive emotional outburst? Journalists have come up with overly convoluted explanations for Trump’s behavior (“This seemingly self-destructive emotional outburst is actually a clever political strategy!”) but there is a much simpler one that follows Hanlon’s Razor.  (“This is a self-destructive emotional outburst.”)

Trump criticized the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, after her city was devastated by Hurricane Maria. After Trump’s series of attacks on the NFL and its players last month, the New York Times called it, “a calculated attempt to shore up his base.”  Was it a deliberate political tactic? Kicking the badly inured when they are down? Hanlon’s Razor says instead, “Nope, he’s just stupid.”

Trump very recently accused Secretary of State Clinton of “repeatedly lying to the FBI” when there were new, highly unfavorable development in Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s dealings with Russia. Some pundits thought Trump’s actions are calculated and deliberate — that he’s a clever media manipulator, always staying one step ahead of editors in Washington and New York. Was Trump employing “racially charged” rhetoric and actions for political gain? Or was he being impulsive, emotional and stupid. Hanlon’s Razor says stupid.

WC isn’t suggesting that Trump and his advisors aren’t capable of clumsy attempts at distraction and misdirection. But the early morning tweets are too disjointed, petty and trivial to plausibly constitute a strategy. Hanlon’s Razor says he’d just being stupid. Again.