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Thinking about thinking

Brandolini’s law and Hitchens’s razor

The ninth in a series of articles where Whitianga resident, Max Ross, is exploring the way we think.

In the current worldwide political environment, truth seems to not be as important as it once was and powerful people are lying and getting away with it all the time. The law and the razor in this week’s article explore why this might be.

Brandolini’s law, which is particularly relevant in the time of the internet, states, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is in order of magnitude, bigger than to produce it.” It is named after an Italian programmer, Alberto Brandolini, who coined the law in 2013.

He came up with this law after watching Silvio Berusconi in a television debate move from one lie to the next at such a pace that he could not be caught out in a meaningful way. It is difficult to debunk false or malicious or misleading information. This is why the spread of false news and conspiracy theories is so difficult to combat. Often, once debunked, the same false information crops up again, later. This is not a new rule. Similar statements have been made in the past. Mark Twain said in 1906, “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again.”

In 2005, Russian physicist, Sergey Lopatnikov, anonymously published a definition which pointed out that if every paragraph of a book requires a chapter to refute it and each chapter a book to refute the chapter, then any book written cannot be refuted. It would take too much time and effort to write and read the refutation.

In the internet age it is very cheap, in both time and money, to publish and distribute false information, which is why this law is so relevant to the internet. Checking sources and looking for evidence becomes easier on the internet. However, it’s still harder than spreading the misinformation.

Another way to state Brandolini’s law is that liars prosper. This is not the best message to deliver. Hopefully, being aware of this law will help us to understand what might be happening when we hear the liars. Another tool that may help is Hitchens’s razor.

A philosophical razor is a rule of thumb that helps us to think about things in a useful way. The razor allows us to shave off possibilities or ways of thinking that are not useful. A razor that helps us to not waste time on things is Hitchens’s razor which states, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” This razor was created to help an atheist dispute religious arguments in 2007, but like all ideas, this was not its first use. There is a latin proverb that states, “What is freely asserted can be freely deserted”.

This razor reminds us that the burden of evidence in a debate or theory rests with the person raising the point or the theory. Perhaps by using this razor we can help to counteract Brandolini’s law.


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