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William of Occam must be crying (opinion)

By ThisIsReno

Submitted by Norm Robins

Here is a quote from page nine of a 2019 World Health Organization (WHO) paper published in their Global Influenza Programme, Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza:

“Contact tracing, quarantine of exposed individuals, entry and exit screening, and border closure are not recommended in any circumstances.”

If William of Occam could read this, he would cry for sure.

So who was William of Occam?

Hardly anyone who hears that name can answer this question, but everyone who has studied Economics 101 has used his insights. William of Occam (this name has various spellings having been written before the advent of dictionaries) was an English Franciscan monk who lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and was also a philosopher of science. He observed that given two competing explanations for the same scientific phenomenon, the simpler one is the better one.

From this, you can derive Occam’s razor. When building a model, of consumer and producer behavior for example, how do we do that? You can theorize about them or you can go into the marketplace and observe them. Upon observation, you will see that when prices go up producers want to produce more. When prices go down, consumers want to consume more. Next in building your model, you shave away everything but that, and you have derived the supply and demand curves that have tortured so many college freshmen studying Economics 101. Scientific reasoning versus deductive reasoning and put through Occam’s razor–it is that simple.

Nobody who knows what they are talking about (as opposed to most people) believe we can observe reality. It’s a hard sell, but true. We observe some of it, and from that we model reality. Sometimes reality itself has nothing to do with modeling because modeling is done based on deductive reasoning, but I’ll touch on that in a later essay. If it turns out our model doesn’t predict reality, we obviously need a new model.

For example, the quote above from the WHO, published just months before the current flu burst forth from the city of Wuhan, China, could not have gotten it more wrong.

Okay, so now we have William of Occam in our pocket, and we are ready to sally forth.  What is seemingly the biggest problem we have today? I say “seemingly” because that is a judgment call. It’s how to contain and eventually eliminate the disastrous flu going around.  We have been using, contrary to the WHO’s admonition, contact tracing, quarantining, screening, and border closures, among others, with a modicum of success.

Gov. Steve Sisolak discusses measures to help the public with housing stability amid the COVID-19 public health crisis, Sunday, March 29, 2020. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Pool) @rookie__rae

Given this background one must wonder how well thought out or effective Governor Sisolak’s pronouncements are. Does he know what he is talking about, or is he guessing? A lot of people, vulnerable people, have been hurt by his closures and cautiously permitted re-openings. And, to add insult to injury, the injured have been mocked by pundits with their own deduced narratives including on these pages.

I put to you we have been guessing all along. Of course, we have been erring on the side of caution because that’s the prudent thing to do. But various countries, states, and cities have all gone their own ways and tried their own solutions. Presumably, they have by now collected their own data. Okay, fair enough.

Let’s dig a little deeper. In truth, science proves nothing, no matter what psychologists and ideologues tell you. Scientific data are used to posit theories, models of reality, if you will.  But then theories must stand up to rigorous, often hostile questioning by other scientists using independently observed data. If a theory stands up to this sort of rigorous assault then it is a useful theory, perhaps even a good one. If not, it ends up in the dustbin of history along with the flat earth one and astrology.

Finally, after all the deaths and hospitalizations this pandemic has caused and all the different solutions we have posited and tried, we now have the data to approach this problem rationally, rigorously, and scientifically. Let’s do that.  We have paid dearly for the data we have. It’s time to use them.

Norm Robins is a retired entrepreneur and ex-engineer whose first love is economics and who has lived and worked all over the world.  He has a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and an MBA in International Business from the University of California, Berkeley.  He and his wife and one of his three children live in Reno, Nevada.

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