The very first broadcast of “Saturday Night Live,” on October 11, 1975 (I was watching – George Carlin hosted with Janice Ian and Billy Preston as musical guests) included a mock commercial featuring future senator Al Franken, presciently, as a caveman, for the “Triple Track,” a three-bladed razor, with “not just two blades in one system, but three stainless, platinum teflex-coated blades melded together to form on incredible shaving cartridge.” It featured the slogan, “Because you’ll believe anything.”
It wasn’t so very long before three-bladed razors became a real thing.1 More importantly, our thinking would be greatly improved by employing a three-bladed – “Triple Track” – razor of a different sort.
William of Ockham is best known for the famous slogan known as “Ockham’s Razor,” often expressed as “Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” In practical terms, it means that other things being equal, simpler theories are better. As Einstein said, “more complicated systems and their combinations should be considered only if there exist physical-empirical reasons to do so.” Newton’s iteration was, “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” And, as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes expressed it, in reverse, “If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Hanlon’s Razor is another related and useful heuristic which can be best summarized as, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect, incompetence, or stupidity.” As Hume noted, we are much too eager to ascribe malice (and goodwill) to natural objects and phenomena.
Our third razor is a new one. As the great Charlie Munger said, just last week, “more damage to the world comes from the cognitive glitches than does from malevolence.”
As I’ve dubbed this “Munger’s Razor,” we now have three helpful, good, and related “razors” to aid our thinking. They aren’t ironclad rules, but they are effective rules of thumb – heuristics to guide our thinking.
Conspiracy theorists illustrate the power of such heuristics nicely. A conspiracy theory is a purported explanation for an event that invokes a conspiracy by powerful actors when other explanations are much more probable, held onto tenaciously, irrespective of evidence. Whether it’s the conviction that the Apollo moon landing was faked, 9/11 was an inside job, vaccinations cause autism, climate change is a Chinese-invented hoax, or something else (“They’re turning the freaking frogs gay!” Alex Jones famously screamed), conspiracy theories all invoke highly complex explanations for events better and more simply explained in other ways.2
There are good, practical reasons for refusing to fall for every alleged conspiracy. Watergate has been the biggest conspiracy in my lifetime. It was undertaken by a small group of the most powerful men in the world with enormous incentives to keep their actions secret. That they failed, quickly and comprehensively, provides strong evidence that conspiracies are exceedingly hard to maintain.
One prominent “cognitive glitch” that empowers conspiracy theories is our inherent overconfidence, even as our conspiracy theories are often totally bizarre and getting more far-fetched all the time. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as having privileged access to special knowledge or a special way of thinking that separates them from the unfortunate masses.
We tend to think that our own refuse smells delightful and that those who disagree with us aren’t merely wrong, but are rather some combination of delusional, stupid, or evil. Thus, discussions turn into nasty arguments, disagreements turn into ideological scrums, and serious disputes become white-hot with rage, invective and ad hominem (basically Twitter’s raison d’être).
My sense is that the key element here is that most partisans see “their side” as not just true, but obviously true. It’s a by-product of our inherent self-aggrandizement and our bias blindness. Therefore, our strongly held positions aren’t truly debatable — they’re seen as objectively and obviously true. After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them. And (our thinking goes) since they are objectively true, anyone who makes the effort to try should be able to ascertain that truth.
Our opponents are thus without excuse – they’re stupid, delusional, or evil. If they disagree with me, they are denying reality. Our highly polarized society, fueled by digital and social media (which serve as “crack for moralists,” in Alan Jacobs’s telling phrase), is ever more committed to seeing our opponents in this unflattering and dangerous light. The “triple track” of razors outlined herein offer a means of doing and being better. May it be so.
1 Gillette announced the Mach3 three-bladed razor in 1998. The Schick Quattro four-bladed razor debuted in 2003 and Gillette brought out a five-bladed razor in 2005. Dorco’s “Pace 7” razor launched in 2015, and boasts three-and-a-half times the shaving ability of your average two-bladed Bic disposable. The jokes today are about eight and 18-bladed razors.
2 To be clear, conspiracies exist. “Just because you’re paranoid,” Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” But it should go without saying that we ought not accept conspiracies as fact without sufficient reason. Sadly, it can’t go without saying because surprisingly huge numbers of us believe them far too readily.