occam's razor is a principle of parsimony & simplicity. lesser-known is frank of effingham who thought that science was at its best when it multiplied concepts far beyond all sense & reason. we give thanks for his shaving foam fire hose  

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this story was in episode 31 #OCCAM #RAZOR #FOAM #SIMPLICITY #PARSIMONY

the error bar says

inspired partly by this week's paper on the excruciatingly-specific neural basis of contagious itch in a very particular strain of mouse; along with my own chequered history of rarely believing scientific papers on face value, especially the complicated ones, i wish to discuss Occam's razor.

William of Occam, a Catholic friar & philosopher, lived 675 years ago in the small village of Ockham in South East England. in modern times, the parish of Ockham contains a golf club, a craniosacral therapist, two paintball games parks & Junction 10 of London's popular orbital motorway & car park.

but Occam is perhaps best known for his 'Razor' - the philosophical principle that "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity". we should always prefer the simplest explanation available.

it is with Occam's razor that i have shaved the faces of many neuroscience topics in my career, from my PhD looking at the complex concepts of the 'body schema' (what Occam might have called 'the brain') & 'peripersonal space' (which Occam found rather tricky to distinguish from the very similar & well-studied mechanisms of selective attention), to some of my postdoctoral work on the lofty 'principle of inverse effectiveness' (for which Occam used the word 'correlation').

yet William was not the only principled philosopher in 14th century Surrey. much lesser-known is Frank of Effingham, who lived just the other side of the golf club from William. Effingham believed, to Occam's great annoyance, that knowledge is disseminated most swiftly when concepts are "befuddled, confused & multiplied with little care or attention".

this principle has become known as Effingham's Shaving Foam Fire Hose.

one of Effingham's great contributions to brain science is in the application of his principle to scientific progress. Effingham realised that, just as soon as most researchers fail to replicate the key findings in a particular field or method, is exactly the time to invent a new method, only very slightly different to the old & failing one; not close enough to be united; not far enough to be unrelated.

in my own field, for example, transcranial magnetic stimulation was invented because its forerunner, transcranial electrical stimulation was too painful; transcranial direct current stimulation was invented because transcranial magnetic stimulation was too difficult; transcranial alternating current stimulation was invented because transcranial direct current stimulation didn't work; & transcranial random noise stimulation was invented because most of the other acronyms had already been used.

so on this, the 675th anniversary of William of Occam's 'Razor', i celebrate the 649th anniversary of Frank of Effingham's Shaving Foam Fire Hose: spreading scientific concepts around with little regard for parsimony or taste.

eight hundred years ago today, in 1322, Frank of Effingham founded the journal 'Current Biology'.


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