Hickam’s Dictum

While researching the medical saying “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras”, I came across Hickam’s dictum – “patients can have as many illnesses as they damn well please.”

It is described as a counter-saying to Occam’s Razor, which has always struck as a a heuristic saying which has been misused many times to suggest that the “simplest” explanation MUST be true. Occam’s Razor can be a valuable tool for cognitive discipline, but it is NOT a normative statement about The Way The World Is

Hickam’s Dictum was a new one on me, but has a reasonable presence in the medical literature. And it is very far from an abstract notion.

There is a whole world of medical sayings and proverbs (a lot of which are new ones on me) out there. On the one hand, they represent a sort of hidden curriculum of heuristic tools. On the other hand, how influential are they really? As I said, I have never come across Hickam’s dictum before – but I think I will end up quoting it quite a bit.

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