Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

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Why Juror 8 of 12 Angry Men (1955) was Wrong on Every Conceivable Level

Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men

Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men

#1: Violation of Occam’s Razor

In life, there are times when we will never be exactly sure about what caused a particular incident or even how it happened, especially if there is very little hard evidence. This is particularly true in any court trial in which all there is is circumstantial evidence, as opposed to something conclusive like DNA evidence or a credible witness.

However, just because we don’t have iron clad evidence, doesn’t mean that we can’t draw reasonable conclusions about whether something happened or not. Besides using common sense and logic, there are certain principles we can use to guide us. One of them is called Occam’s Razor (alternately called “Okham’s Razor”), the principle that the simplest or most straightforward explanation or solution is the likeliest one. This doesn’t mean the most simple-minded explanation or solution. It means the one out of all the others that isn’t needlessly convoluted (or complex) or doesn’t bring in a lot of irrelevant, extraneous detail not really necessary in explaining what happened.

Occam's Razor Example

Occam’s (alternately, Ockham’s) Razor Example | Source: Market Business

For example, let’s say you come home from work one day and you see a puddle of vomit on your kitchen floor. You live alone, but you have a dog. You examine him and as far as you can tell, he doesn’t look sick. However, you do notice that his paws smell like vomit.

Now, you have no idea whether or not your dog threw up on your floor, because there’s nothing for you to conclusively prove that he did. So, given what you see, what can you conclude happened? You can conclude that a friend who has the keys to your house stopped by while you were at work because he suddenly needed to throw up after contracting a stomach virus. However, he was so sick, he never made it to your bathroom in time. He threw up on the floor and in embarrassment, left without cleaning up, hoping that you’d blame your dog instead. Your dog then accidentally stepped into the puddle of vomit, explaining why he smells the way he does.

Could that have happened? Of course. But absence of any evidence suggesting that this could’ve happened, it isn’t really necessary to imagine this whole convoluted scenario involving your friend when the simplest and likeliest possibility is that your dog got sick and accidentally stepped in the puddle of his own vomit. To argue otherwise is a violation of Occam’s Razor.

In 12 Angry Men, Juror 8 deliberately violated Occam’s Razor by constantly whipping up extraneous details and “probabilities” that weren’t necessary in concluding whether the defendant was innocent or not. One of the biggest violations of Occam’s Razor involved the question of why the defendant couldn’t account for his switchblade going missing on the night of the murder. Juror 8 argues that there was the possibility that there was a hole in the defendant’s pocket in which the switchblade fell through. This possible scenario introduces another possibility that maybe someone else found the switchblade, grabbed it and killed the defendant’s father while he was at the movies.

Again, as with our scenario with your hypothetical dog, could this other possibility have happened? Sure. But given the eyewitness testimony, poor alibi, plausible motive and other evidence presented during the trial, isn’t the simplest and most likely explanation that the defendant simply ditched the weapon so as not to get caught? Why imagine that there was a hole in his pocket? Why imagine that some mysterious other person discovered the switchblade that fell through the defendant’s pocket and stabbed his father?

1 Comment

  1. Terry

    Many people will believe a slick-talking politician over one who may be harsh but tells the truth. This is basically what this film is about. I think the writer of the movie (and the play) did it deliberately. He was making fools of those who believe the smooth-talking Fonda who has absolutely no facts on his side, over the other rougher men who did have the facts to back up their stance.

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