Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens’s Razor: what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence

In our daily discourse, it’s common to encounter bold claims made without a shred of evidence. These baseless assertions, while occasionally persuasive, rest on shaky ground. Hitchens’s Razor, a clear and concise principle, provides a response to such proclamations: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” This adage serves as a powerful reminder of the essential role evidence plays in meaningful conversation and debate, prompting both speakers and listeners to prioritize substance over mere speculation.

The Origins of Hitchens’s Razor

The dictum “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence” first appears in the British author and journalist Christopher Hitchens’s 2007 book titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

The label, “Hitchens’s razor”, though, was coined a few years later by atheist blogger Rixaeton in December 2010 (you can see Rixaeton’s article titled “Hitchans’s Razor” here). Its further popularization was spearheaded by figures like the American evolutionary biologist, skeptic, and atheist activist Jerry Coyne, especially after the unfortunate demise of Hitchens in December 2011.

Delving into Hitchens’s writings reveals his affinity for logical frameworks. Before introducing his own razor, Hitchens had made references to Occam’s razor, another heuristic principle used to eliminate unnecessary assumptions. His proclivity for Occam’s razor was duly noted by Michael Kinsley in a 2007 article in The New York Times. To many, Hitchens’s iteration seemed like a modern spin on Occam’s razor. Jillian Melchior of The Wall Street Journal even remarked that Hitchens’s principle was his own variation of this age-old tool.

Interestingly, Hitchens’s razor also finds parallels in historical proverbs and principles. It bears resemblance to the Latin proverb, “quod grātīs asseritur, grātīs negātur,” which translates to “what is freely asserted can be freely deserted.” This proverb, which emphasizes the need for proof in assertions, can be traced back to at least the 17th century.

Another analogous principle comes from Roman jurist Julius Paulus Prudentissimus from around the 2nd to 3rd century CE: “Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat,” which means “Proof lies on he who asserts, not on he who denies.”

This principle not only forms the foundation of the presumption of innocence in English law but was also referenced by the English philosopher Antony Flew (11 February 1923 – 8 April 2010) in the 1980s. Flew argued its applicability in debates about God’s existence, suggesting that atheism could be the default stance until substantial evidence of a deity’s existence is presented.

Hitchens Razor: what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
Hitchens’s Razor: what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Hitchen’s Razor Explained

The Role of Evidence in Constructive Debate

Debate is an intrinsic component of human communication, allowing for the exploration of ideas, solutions, and truth. At the heart of every constructive debate lies the cornerstone of evidence. Without evidence, assertions are merely opinions or beliefs, lacking the foundation required for a meaningful discussion.

Evidence serves multiple roles in the context of a debate. Firstly, it lends credibility to an argument. When a claim is supported by verifiable and concrete evidence, it stands on firmer ground, making it harder to refute. This evidence can come in various forms – empirical data, historical precedents, expert testimonials, or logical reasoning.

Secondly, evidence levels the playing field. In an age of information overload, it’s easy to get swayed by eloquent speeches or persuasive rhetoric. However, evidence ensures that discussions are grounded in facts rather than mere verbosity. It acts as an equalizer, demanding that each participant in a debate meets a standard of proof, regardless of their oratorical skills.

Furthermore, evidence promotes clarity and precision. In debates, especially on complex topics, the waters can quickly become muddied with tangential arguments and distractions. The consistent reliance on evidence helps maintain focus on the topic at hand and fosters a more linear and productive progression of ideas.

In essence, evidence is the keystone of constructive debate. It establishes trust, encourages critical thinking, and ensures that discussions transcend personal biases to reach conclusions based on facts. As epitomized by principles like Hitchens’s razor, in the absence of evidence, arguments lose their weight, emphasizing the indispensable role evidence plays in shaping informed and robust debates.

Navigating Baseless Claims in Everyday Discourse

Every day, in both personal and public spheres, we are bombarded with a multitude of statements and claims. From social media posts to casual conversations, assertions are made, often without substantial backing. In this landscape of rapid information exchange, the ability to discern and navigate baseless claims becomes crucial.

Baseless claims, which lack verifiable evidence or logical foundation, pose several challenges. For one, they can spread misinformation, leading to misguided beliefs or actions. Furthermore, they often thrive on emotional appeals, preying on human biases and sentiments, making them seductive and, at times, hard to counter.

To effectively navigate such claims, a few strategies can be employed:

  1. Critical Thinking: Before accepting any statement, it’s vital to scrutinize its source, context, and content. Ask questions like: Is this claim logically consistent? Is there any evidence provided, and if so, how reliable is it?
  2. Fact-checking: In our digital age, numerous platforms and tools offer quick fact-checking services. When confronted with a dubious claim, especially if it has significant implications, a quick search can often reveal its veracity.
  3. Demand Evidence: As Hitchens’s razor suggests, any claim made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask for sources or data supporting an assertion, and doing so can deter the spread of baseless information.
  4. Stay Updated: Continuously updating one’s knowledge base helps in recognizing and debunking false claims. Being informed also builds resilience against persuasive but hollow rhetoric.

By arming ourselves with skepticism, critical thinking, and a demand for evidence, we can ensure that our conversations and beliefs remain grounded in reality.

The Impact of Hitchens’s Razor on Critical Thinking

Hitchens’s Razor, with its concise yet profound dictum, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence,” serves as a beacon for those advocating for reason and logical scrutiny. Its impact on critical thinking – a skill imperative in our complex, information-saturated world – is both profound and multifaceted.

At its core, Hitchens’s Razor emphasizes the value of evidence. In doing so, it inherently encourages individuals to question, probe, and demand substantiation for claims. Instead of passively accepting information, adherents of this principle are prompted to actively engage with content, discerning its credibility and worth.

Moreover, the razor acts as a protective shield against the onslaught of misinformation and baseless assertions prevalent in today’s discourse. By providing a simple metric – the presence or absence of evidence – it offers a straightforward method to filter out noise and focus on substance. This not only elevates the quality of discourse but also fosters an environment where truth and reason prevail.

Furthermore, Hitchens’s Razor cultivates a mindset of intellectual responsibility. It places the onus on the claimant to provide evidence and justifications for their assertions. This responsibility encourages rigorous research, thorough understanding, and a genuine commitment to truth, all of which are foundational to critical thinking.

Hitchens’s Razor is more than just a principle of debate; it’s a catalyst for cultivating a society that values evidence, challenges assumptions, and celebrates intellectual rigor. Its influence on critical thinking ensures that individuals are not just consumers of information, but discerning evaluators, ready to navigate the complexities of the modern world with clarity and insight.

Real-world Applications: Dismissing Unsupported Assertions

Here are a few instances where the razor has proven instrumental:

  1. Medical Claims and Treatments: The healthcare industry is rife with products and treatments making bold claims, from “miracle cures” for terminal illnesses to weight-loss supplements promising rapid results. In many cases, these assertions are backed by little more than anecdotal evidence or skewed data. The principle of Hitchens’s Razor empowers consumers to question such claims and demand substantial scientific evidence. For instance, in the early 2000s, a wave of enthusiasm for the benefits of “oxygen-rich” water products emerged, with marketers asserting increased energy and better health outcomes. However, when scrutinized, these claims lacked solid scientific backing, leading to their eventual dismissal by the wider medical community. The same is also true for “organic food”, “homeopathy”, or “aroma therapy”, etc.
  2. Financial Schemes: The financial world is not immune to baseless claims. Over the years, countless investment schemes have promised unrealistically high returns with minimal risk. An illustrative case is the infamous Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Though Madoff’s investment returns appeared consistently excellent on the surface, they lacked a transparent and evidence-based strategy. A rigorous application of Hitchens’s Razor would have encouraged potential investors to question and probe these improbable returns, demanding concrete evidence of their legitimacy.
  3. Conspiracy Theories: The digital age has seen a proliferation of conspiracy theories, from moon landing denials to theories surrounding global events. Often, these theories are built on conjecture, misinterpretation, or selective data. By applying Hitchens’s Razor, one can challenge the veracity of such theories, dismissing those without solid evidence and avoiding the pitfalls of misinformation.

In each of these cases, Hitchens’s Razor serves as a practical tool to sift through the barrage of information, ensuring that decisions, whether in health, finance, or understanding world events, are grounded in facts and evidence, rather than unfounded assertions.

The Balance Between Skepticism and Open-mindedness

A well-informed worldview necessitates a delicate balance between skepticism and open-mindedness. While Hitchens’s Razor encourages us to demand evidence for claims, it is equally crucial not to close ourselves off from new ideas prematurely. Striking this balance ensures that we critically evaluate information without becoming cynically resistant to potential truths.

Skepticism, in its genuine form, is about questioning and seeking evidence before accepting claims. It’s a tool to safeguard against gullibility. However, like all tools, it can be misapplied. An example of this misapplication is found among conspiracy theorists. While they often tout themselves as “skeptics”, many employ a warped form of skepticism, dismissing established facts and evidence while accepting unfounded claims with little to no scrutiny. This is not true skepticism but rather a selective, biased form of doubt that cherry-picks what to believe based on preconceived notions.

For instance, a conspiracy theorist might reject overwhelming evidence about the safety of vaccines, citing “skepticism” about pharmaceutical companies or mainstream media. Yet, the same individual might readily accept unverified anecdotes or fringe sources that align with their beliefs, demonstrating an inconsistency in their skeptical approach.

This pseudo-skepticism obscures the genuine need for evidence and critical thinking, turning skepticism into a shield against inconvenient truths rather than a tool for discernment.

True open-mindedness, on the other hand, is the willingness to consider new ideas and evidence, even if they challenge our current beliefs. It involves not only questioning but also listening and adjusting our views based on where the evidence leads.

In conclusion, while Hitchens’s Razor and genuine skepticism urge us to demand evidence for assertions, true intellectual growth also requires genuine open-mindedness. Only by harmonizing these two approaches can we navigate the complexities of the world, distinguishing between unfounded claims and novel truths, without becoming entrenched in our biases.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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