Keep Oc­cam’s ra­zor sharp

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

In ran­dom con­ver­sa­tions I had around the bar­be­cue dur­ing the sum­mer break, the talk some­times went down a rab­bit hole when some­one threw in du­bi­ous facts. The most ob­vi­ous fal­la­cies were greeted with mock­ing shouts of ‘‘fake news’’. Oth­ers had me frown­ing and reach­ing for my phone to do my own re­search. That’s where Bjorn Borg came in. As those of us Fit­bit wear­ers were com­par­ing our rest­ing heart rates (mine is 68), some­one con­fi­dently stated that the Swedish ten­nis star had a rest­ing heart rate of 18 beats per minute dur­ing his ten­nis ca­reer.

Re­ally? I wasn’t buy­ing it. I Googled it. Turns out there are all sorts of claims, many in rep­utable out­lets, about the 11-Grandslam-sin­gles-title win­ner’s fa­mously low heart rate, which sup­pos­edly gave him a phys­i­o­log­i­cal edge over his ri­vals. It was 35. No it was 45. Ac­tu­ally it was 39.

But delv­ing into Borg’s 1980 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, My Life and Game, re­vealed the truth.

‘‘The myth dates back to when, at the age of 18, [Borg] took a med­i­cal exam for mil­i­tary ser­vice and was recorded as 38,’’ ex­plains coau­thor Eu­gene Scott.

‘‘It is now about 50 when he wakes up and around 60 in the af­ter­noon,’’ Scott added, writ­ing when Borg was still at the top of his game.

My fact radar is pro­grammed with three set­tings, all per­ma­nently switched on.

First, I re­mem­ber the shrewd ad­vice of the late great Amer­i­can cos­mol­o­gist Carl Sagan.

‘‘Ex­tra­or­di­nary claims re­quire ex­tra­or­di­nary ev­i­dence,’’ the gifted sci­ence pop­u­lariser wrote. Keep that in mind next time you are urged to eat like a cave­man.

Of course, the ev­i­dence can be vo­lu­mi­nous and dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate. So, sec­ond, I look at who is pre­sent­ing the ev­i­dence and where they come from. A pro­fes­sor with lots of pa­pers in qual­ity jour­nals and a long ca­reer at es­teemed in­sti­tu­tions is likely to be more cred­i­ble than a self-pro­fessed ex­pert with some pills to sell.

Third, I ap­ply Oc­cam’s ra­zor which holds that when try­ing to fig­ure out an ex­pla­na­tion for some­thing, the sim­plest an­swer is usu­ally the best. Don’t make as­sump­tions, stay scep­ti­cal, check the facts and help keep your mates on the straight and nar­row.

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