Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Kiss my Occam's Razor

I bristle at the mere mention the K.I.S.S. principle. My structures professor at Cornell School of Architecture was the first person I knew who referred to this, but it somehow seemed to apply to the design of steel structures for building. Some year's later, I had an incompetent manager who referred to K.I.S.S. nearly every time he faced a difficult decision. I soon realized that the principle had more to do with stupidity than simplicity. Perhaps this is why it's such a popular refrain of thoughtless decision makers trying to avoid the inevitable hard decisions of everyday life.

Its overuse, over-application, and overly-simplistic nature make K.I.S.S. essentially useless. In fact, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of stupidity. And you can't argue when someone puts their foot down in the quagmire of K.I.S.S., because it just makes you seem contrary for no good reason. It's as if K.I.S.S. were the secret code for "we're not going to talk about this, any more."

However, there is an undeniable germ of truth in this principle that I, too, find attractive. Simplicity really is a good thing and I often speak of the elegant simplicity of designs that I admire. But elegant simplicity is a rare thing and hard to achieve. It's the antithesis of stupidity, and is more correctly summarized by Occam's Razor, or the Law of Succinctness.


Essentially, given two theories that say the same thing, one chooses the theory that introduces the fewest assumptions. In scientific inquiry, one continues to apply Occam's Razor in binary fashion (applicable to computer science) until one has eliminated as many assumptions as possible and produced the most succinct, or simplest, result. Instead of shutting off debate, Occam's Razor invites debate as a means for achieving understanding in complex situations. Which means that Occam's Razor also recognizes complexity as the pre-existing condition. Complexity, debate, and the process of finding the finely-honed solution based on the fewest number of variables, or assumptions, is what leads to informed decision making.

This is not simple and it's not for people who prefer the thoughtless and stupid. It is a process requiring thoughtfulness, intelligence, and a recognition of complexity. I prefer to celebrate the complexity of things, even as I recognize the enormous challenges this creates. But I do not want my world dumbed down for the sake of stupid simplification. Instead, complexity allows us to celebrate truly elegant simplicity and those who are able to find it and define it for others.

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