Essay: On Ockham’s Razor and Gulf Ills

October, 1997, New York, NY
The analytic instrument we feel most comfortable wielding, journalistically, in exploring the cause of Gulf Syndrome is Ockham’s Razor. It is named for, but apparently was not quite explicitly stated in the writings of English philosopher William of Ockham (circa 1300-1349). Also called the Principle of Parsimony, it states that: “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”
The meaning, as explained in philosophical dictionaries, is that the razor cuts away useless or gratuitous ideas in explaining a phenomenon. One should accept, rather, the simplest hypothesis that can explain the data.
In the elucidation of diseases and their causes, the less that is known about an illness at the onset, the more possible causes it has. Think about all of the “causes” adduced fifteen years ago for AIDS! They include dope, sensation-enhancing drugs (poppers), etc. In the end, after scientific investigation, only one essential cause remains: HIV.
No virus, then no disease, no matter what else is happening.
By the same token, Gulf War syndrome has been attributed to a variety of causes, including, according to the Presidential Advisory Committee, these top 10 candidates:
Biological warfare agents
Chemical warfare agents
Depleted uranium in shells, armor
Infectious diseases
Oil-well fires
Petroleum products
Pyridostigmine bromide as an antidote to poison gas
Several of these putative causes, such as oil-well fires, can be eliminated if, as Katherine Leisure finds, some servicemen and women who
suffer from the syndrome were long gone from the Gulf before combat started and Iraq fired the wells.
Per Ockham’s Razor, we think infectious diseases is the
simplest hypothesis at the moment, and leishmaniasis the best candidate among them. If there is more than one cause, which we doubt, researchers will have to identify first one, and then a second (or more) cause(s), and, finally, elucidate a method for differentiating between them case-by-case. – Q.E.D.