Hanson’s Razor

We’re all familiar with Ockham’s Razor, usually paraphrased thus:

All other things being equal, the simplest explanation is best.

If you’ve been reading Blunt Object regularly, you’re probably also familiar with Heinlein’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity… but don’t rule out malice.

Inspired by Elmo’s recent post on gay marriage laws, I propose to complete the trifecta with Hanson’s Razor, named for Robin Hanson whose blog pretty much embodies the dictum:

Irrational positions are usually rational signaling devices.

Elmo notes that:

[L]aws against gay marriage accomplish their unstated goal of reaffirming whose subculture is in charge, and who gets to tell whom how to live.

It is, however, important to note that all three of these razors include caveats.  William of Ockham tended to use his razor to carve up counterarguments to “God did it”, which is wonderfully parsimonious but lacks the predictive power of, say, Newtonian mechanics or the germ theory of disease.  Heinlein was careful to reserve a place for malice in his own razor, which he first introduced in a short story written in 1941.  And Hanson’s Razor makes plenty of room for irrationality — particularly in matters of macroeconomics and trade.  While many people who advocate for import tariffs, minimum wages, and rent controls do so like the peacock — to show off their populist credentials in as obtrusive a way as possible — one oughtn’t rule out the possibility that they think these things actually work as intended.


19 Responses to “Hanson’s Razor”

  1. February 27, 2011 at 18:35

    Hanson’s Razor – brilliant! I am so going to steal this.

  2. 2 The four doormen of the apocalypse
    March 7, 2011 at 14:10

    So, is support for Gay Marriage also a rational signaling device based on an irrational position?

    How about cheap signaling devices (for the proposer) that uses a highly unlikely outcome for the proposer. Eg, SWPL support for AIDS research, since white heterosexual individuals have only a minute probability of ever contracting AIDS. It is pretty much the exclusive domain of gay males and intravenous drug users.

    What I am asking, then, is under what ‘razor’ should we file this signaling class?

    • March 7, 2011 at 14:33

      Depends on whether we’re talking about actual SWPL support for AIDS research or merely “raising awareness”. In the first case, it depends to a small degree on risk tolerance, and to a much larger degree on whether you consider altruism rational. In the second case, it’s pretty clear that raising awareness is Hansonian signaling.

      To answer the question you’re smugly implying but don’t quite seem to have the guts to ask outright: no, positions I support aren’t immune from examination under Hanson’s Razor. I write a blog, for fuck’s sake — that’s not rational except under any but the most exceptional conditions of opportunity cost except as a mechanism for social signaling.

      Finally, I’m not claiming any sort of closure for the three razors I listed.

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