Can Occam’s Razor Still Cut?

fancy-straight-razorby Terry Welshans

I have been interested in conspiracy theories for some time. I suppose there has always been a dissenting point of view on about everything, but some of these theories fly in the face of Occam’s Razor with impunity. Although at times a complex explanation is correct, almost always the simple, direct explanation, when supported by facts and proof, is correct.


It is easy to be drawn into some of these theories, as we tend to enjoy possessing exclusive information, which abounds in most conspiracies. Almost all conspiracy theories are founded on a single fact that seems to be an outlier at best. The theory then expands, using that single fact, into a whole new explanation of an event, becoming far too complex to be rational.

Some of these theories are based on a political agenda that is meant to either enhance the position of its creator or to demean or demonize an opponent. These theories are self-serving. Similar facts that apply in other cases, but do not reinforce the theory, are ignored. These alternate theories take on a life unto themselves, and , when repeated often enough, replace the true facts of the situation.

In war, the first step in defeating an enemy is to dehumanize and demean them. It becomes easy to hurt or kill an enemy when they are not recognized as human. A stereotype is one way to do this.

Prior to and during World War II Americans thought little of the Japanese people. They were characterized in cartoons as bumbling creatures in thick glasses that were incapable of producing anything of a durable nature.  The American military was positive that every Japanese war machine was flimsy, poor performing and not worthy of a serious engagement. Some American aviators volunteered to do battle with the Japanese in China before America entered the war. These aviators, led by Claire Chennault, became known as the “Flying Tigers” and were the first Americans to fight against the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter. Reports to Washington told of a fantastic new Japanese fighter flown by excellent Japanese pilots that constantly outperformed the American Flying Tigers’ P-40 Warhawk. This report ran counter to accepted theory, and was completely ignored. The Army’s stereotype did not allow such an airplane, so it logically could not exist. The P-40, after all, was the most modern fighter in the Army’s inventory, and was thought by the Army to be the premier fighter of its time. Common knowledge at the time was that a Japanese pilot could not fly a high performance airplane. Aviation “experts” knew a Japanese pilot could not see well enough because of their “slanted eyes.”

Lookouts-p42Lookout Manual  page 42, NavPers publication 170069, 1943

On December 7, 1941, Americans at Pearl Harbor, witnessing these aircraft flying overhead while the ships and airfields were under attack, were in awe at how they performed. Once the Japanese insignia was seen, the military was in total shock. The attack itself was thought impossible, and again, the stereotype prevailed.

An eye witness to that attack knew better. Major Jimmy Gates’ story puts it in perspective. Jimmy realized immediately they were under attack by pros.

This of course spawned a conspiracy theory that President Roosevelt had allowed and even encouraged the attack to happen. No one could believe that we were completely unaware such an attack was possible when well after the fact, several documents indicated otherwise. Never mind the documents were unavailable at that time as they were not decoded until months after the war. This theory became the lynch-pin of the conspiracy, and proof the President knew when and where the attack was coming.

Everyone had forgotten that a little more than a year earlier, the British had launched 19 biplanes from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious (R87) in a daring night attack at Taranto, Italy. The attack came as a complete surprise to the Italians, who were in awe that almost all of the Italian navy had been sunk.

Jump forward in time about sixty years.

On September 11, 2001 the United States was attacked by a terrorist force. Four commercial airliners were hijacked and used as cruise missiles piloted by humans who were ready and willing to die for their cause. The plan was master-minded by a small group of Islamic radicals led by Usama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden (we know him as Osama bin Laden). The plan was simple. Hijack the airplanes using a small group of people, a simple task as the protocol in place at the time was for the pilot to do as told, and not resist, a method which had worked for forty years. This time it didn’t. The hijackers did not want asylum in a friendly nation or a suitcase full of money. They wanted to destroy the aircraft, crew and passengers while inflicting as much shock to the American psyche as possible. And they were quite good at it. Again, America was in disbelief, in shock that such a thing was possible.

After the fact, a report was published with background information on the hijackers that included reports that they were individuals who were already under suspicion by a number of Federal agencies. The report was critical of these agencies in that they did not share that information. Had they done so, the events of 9-11-2001 may have been prevented. The conspiracy theorists took this and ran with it. It became an industry.

More than twenty years have passed and these theories still have traction, although not as much as when they were new.

Years ago I spoke with a fellow I have known for some time. We were sitting around a camp fire at the campground at an antique tractor show where we had a common bond. The conversation turned to the 9/11 attack. This fellow believed it was a cruise missile that struck the Pentagon. His theory was based on fragments of and out-of-context quotes from news reports. He quoted one reporter there was no airplane at the scene, and no airplane wreckage was visible. He said that the video used to describe the flight path of the airplane crash proved no airplane was present and that no airplane could have flown as low as thought due to “ground effect.” All good arguments until you check the facts and closely examine the photos published at the time.

I have held a commercial pilot certificate for more than two decades. I have been at several aircraft crash sites. I know how airplanes fly and I know and understand the aerodynamic laws that control flight. I began asking questions to determine how much of what he had said was fact and how much was fiction. After each question was answered, I countered each with a factual statement disproving the elaborate theory proving his case. His argument about ground effect led me to an offer to take him for a ride in my own small Cessna airplane where I could demonstrate how ground effect affects airplane performance when close to the ground. He declined.

He was also unconvinced that any explanation I gave was correct. I can understand this. His were closely held beliefs and proven true within his mind. No other explanation could replace these beliefs, and arguments opposite his beliefs only added strength to them.

Today, we see that similar theories are alive and at work in the political arena. One Presidential candidate has been demonized by the other over a minuscule event with an unfortunate loss of life, while ignoring a similar and more serious series of similar events that happened to President of that candidate’s own party. The candidate’s foe is dehumanized, called school-yard names and is stereotyped, and becomes easy to hate. The hate spills over into threats, in some a person is roughed up; in others there is a masked threat of deadly force. A conspiracy is alive and well concerning this hated opponent, a theory not supported by the facts, but has a single seed from which it grew. When you examine the facts, you clearly see the motive force is to discredit a political opponent, at the expense of the truth.

Recently, I spoke with a friend who supports one of the Presidential candidates with a passion. He supports that candidate even though many of the candidate’s statements and positions would not benefit him and may in fact harm him. I asked him why he supports a candidate who not only has views contrary to his own, that candidate advocates violating the United States Constitution and international law. His response was to regurgitate the party line hate mantra, ignoring the contradictions. Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher wrote:

“An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.”

Facts and logic do not seem to sway or influence these strongly held opinions of the typical conspiracy theorist.

Occam’s Razor seems to have gotten dull.

About Terry Welshans

I grew up in Burbank, California. My dad worked at a company that made sub assemblies for about every airplane made in the 1960-1970 era, so it was only natural that the aviation bug bit me while I was quite young. I hold a commercial pilot certificate and fly as much as I can. I live in Bardstown, Kentucky with my wife, moving here after we retired. I am a Vietnam veteran and a cancer survivor. I like to keep politicians honest, and do so when they open an avenue where I feel they have erred.
This entry was posted in Aviation, Conspiracy, History, Politics, Terrorism, US Military, World War II and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Can Occam’s Razor Still Cut?

  1. wordcloud9 says:

    Welcome Terry! Good read

  2. I have had many arguments with True Believers about 9-11 conspiracies. Just yesterday I saw a post about the WTC that claimed there was no airplane in the picture. Also, that an airplane did not hit the Pentagon because there were no airplane-looking parts laying around. I have tried to explain that when an airplane hits a solid object like a masonry wall at more than half the speed of sound, it does not “crash” in the sense of crunching like an auto accident. It will splash when it hits. If there is anything bigger than a playing card in the debris field, that would be unusual.

    Fighter planes are built to withstand stresses four to five times greater than airliners. They are also designed to absorb battle damage. Yet, look what happens when an F-4 Phantom fighter jet hits a masonry wall about the same thickness as the outer wall of the Pentagon. This test crash was at 500 MPH. Flight 77 was tracked by radar at 530 MPH as it approached the Pentagon.

    • Chuck Stanley, you would be wise to not pay any mind to conspiracy theories related to the 9/11/2001 World Trade Center attack unless substantive evidence can be found to vindicate and/or validate the views of 9/11 truthers. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, the only conspiracy theories that are of interest to me are those pertaining to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

      • Jeff, no one with any real engineering background, especially related to aviation, pays the tinfoil hat crowd any mind. Here at FFS, we take a dim view of CT stuff, which includes the anti-vaxxer crowd and 9-11 truthers. The chemtrail and HAARP group are so silly they discredit themselves.

        As far as assassinations are concerned; there are some unanswered questions about the murders of JFK and MLK. I have no doubt that Oswald fired all the shots that killed JFK and wounded Gov. Connolly, His rifle got some bad press by people who don’t know much about rifles, but it was designed and built by Italian engineers, and good enough to have been used by snipers. At that close range of Dealy Plaza, Oswald did not need a scope. He could have used the iron sights, which makes acquiring a target a lot easier in a bolt action rifle. Even many marksmen overlook that. I watched my daughter, Brandi, shoot her bolt action .243 Savage, and am reasonably confident she could have made those shots. The main questions are who helped him. I know a number of Cuban expats who hated him with a red hot passion after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Not to mention the mob enemies he and Robert made, as well as southern segregationists. JFK had so many enemies they needed to take a number and get in line.

        As far as MLK goes, the petty crook James Earl Ray could only have pulled off his getaway plan if he had outside help. He never squealed on whoever hired him. I have my own suspicions about that.

        • Chuck Stanley, I take a dim view of the conspiracy theories surrounding the World Trade Center attacks as well. What about Lee Harvey Oswald claiming to be a patsy? Do you think he really was guilty as some people seem to believe or that he was set up to take the fall for the real assassins? Putting personal biases aside, do you think Lee Harvey Oswald was the only one involved? Or that there is a lot more to the story? What about the Mafia and the CIA? Both had motive to want John F. Kennedy dead. The Mafia because of Robert F. Kennedy’s war on organized crime and the CIA because John F. Kennedy reportedly wanted to shut down and ultimately dismantle the agency. Assuming that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin, what would be his motive? A desire for fame? A desire to prove himself loyal to the ideology and ultimate cause of Marxism? Also, footage shows John F. Kennedy being shot twice, 1 shot threw his head forward, the other throwing his head backward. Some people wanted to exhume John F. Kennedy’s body and look for traces of mercury, the bullet type that was reportedly fired by a man named James Files. Of course, with contradictory stories related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who should be believed? Lee Harvey Oswald, who denied shooting anybody or James Files who said he was involved in the assassination when it took place? It seems to me that any evidence that paint Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole assassin leaves out some critical pieces of information which clearly indicates more than one person was involved.

        • Chuck Stanley, I can imagine that Brandi would be very accurate with a bolt action rifle. I am not inclined to believe every single conspiracy theory that I read about. Those pertaining to the assassination of John F. Kennedy are of interest to me. Do I believe all of them? No. Am I inclined to question the official story? Absolutely. Why do you take a dim view of conspiracy theories? Also, Lee Harvey Oswald qualified as a marksman, which is the lowest you can be on the shooter scale. Even with mountainous degrees of evidence, what is so wrong with the notion of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law? The only reason for us being in the dark as to the facts is so that nobody will truly know what happened. Terry Welshans, from the standpoint of conspiracy theories, I don’t put a lot of stock into them for the most part. What I do find interesting is how Lee Harvey Oswald was able to allegedly fire all the shots that hit John F. Kennedy and John Connally who was sitting in front of him. Either Lee Harvey Oswald was a damn good shot or more than one shooter was involved.

          • Jeff,
            As for Brandi, I watched her put round after round through the same hole in a target at more than 100 feet. She could come close to that at 100 meters. All without using a bench rest. Oswald used the window sill as a bench rest.

            This is Brandi after putting two magazines of .243 rounds though the same hole. Bolt action rifle and did not use the bench rest.

            Using the latest forensic ballistics science, plus computer graphics and laser technology not available to the Warren Commission, the so called “magic bullet” was not magic at all. The bullet path followed all the normal laws of physics. Michael and Luke Haag of Forensic Science Consultants did extensive tests for PBS’ NOVA documentary “Cold Case, JFK.” The video clip below is an excerpt from the documentary.

  3. Terry Welshans says:

    Airplanes are like egg shells, only filled with air. Even a low speed crash disintegrates into small debris, then burns into a molten heap.

  4. It’s one of my favorite tools. Welcome aboard, Terry.

  5. shortfinals says:

    The attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto is still celebrated by the Royal Navy. Two waves of Fairey Swordfish, most armed with an 18 inch torpedo, some with flares and 250lb bombs, boldly attacked the Italian fleet. The anachronistic Swordfish was later replaced by yet another biplane from the Fairey, the Albacore – this had touches of modernity, such as an enclosed cockpit and a sleeve-valve engine, but it was still an out-dated biplane! Ironically, Swordfish continued on ’til the end of the War in Europe, outlasting its intended replacement, the Albacore (the last Swordfish units were radar-equipped, painted all black and used to hunt down German E-boats and miniature submarines at night off the Dutch and Belgian coats).

  6. rafflaw says:


  7. Terry Welshans says:

    Thanks to all for the warm welcome!

    Shortfinals: I love the Swordfish’s unofficial nickname “the stringbag”. Lets not forget it was also a major player in finding and sinking the ‘Bismark’.

  8. Very interesting read. Thank you, Terry, and welcome!

  9. Chuck Stanley and Terry Welshans, the conspiracy theories that I find most fascinating are those surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Other conspiracy theories seem far-fetched in some respects.

    • Terry Welshans says:

      Hi Jeffrey.
      Conspiracy theories concerning the JFK assassination are very wide spread, and many are based in fact. John’s brother Bobby deported known mobster Carlos Marcello to Guatemala, the location on his passport, in the middle of the night. He had a reason for revenge. Check him out at Wikipedia. One book I read had the killer in the car behind the President’s, the killer being a secret service agent who quickly raised an AR-15 from the seat of the car at the sound of the first shot, accidentally shooting the president when the gun fired unexpectedly. There are hundreds of them…..

  10. Terry Welshans, I find some conspiracy theories to be patently absurd. Chuck Stanley, I tend to take some conspiracy theories with a grain of salt.

  11. Terry Welshans, I assume you are familiar with Jesse Ventura and Alex Jones?

    • Terry Welshans says:

      Yes. Alex Jones, in particular. He can build Mount Everest out of a grain of sand. Jesse Ventura, ex-wrestler and ex-governor has his own world-view as well. Both are well known political commentators with rather radical programs on alt-right networks. I personally don’t pay much attention to wither one.

  12. Terry Welshans, as far as conspiracy theories go, I find some to be fascinating. Other conspiracy theories seem to be far-fetched.

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