Laying Down The Law
Posted by Richard Conniff on October 8, 2007
I like to collect gratuitous opinions served up as laws of social behavior. Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will”) is the most famous example. But the obscure ones are more fun. Say, for instance, that someone in an argument starts to foam at the mouth. You mildly remark, “What you’re saying is a perfect instance of Benford’s Law of Controversy,” and it will take a Google search for the poor sap him to figure out that you have insulted him: Benford’s Law states that passion in any argument is inversely proportional to the amount of real information advanced.
Godwin’s Law is also handy. It holds that the longer an argument drags on, the likelier someone will stoop to a Hitler or Nazi analogy. And in common practice, when a rival tries it (other than in appropriate contexts like genocide), you have only to say “Godwin’s law,” and a trapdoor falls open, plunging him into a pool of hungry crocodiles. Sweet, no?
Sweeter still, these little rules allow us to sound intellectual without necessarily having to do any homework. That’s why people are always citing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Well, it’s also the reason they almost always get it wrong. The Uncertainty Principle actually has to do with physics, and let’s just say that if you read it, your head will explode. So what’s that nice idea about how observation inevitably alters the thing being observed? That’s “the observer effect.” But nobody calls it that because the absence of a tag like Heisenberg means it lacks smartypants heft. What we really need is the Heisenberg Probability Principle, which states that anybody mentioning Heisenberg is probably a pompous twit. (And may I be the first to plead guilty as charged?)
Well, o.k., it’s not just about the pleasures of intellectual one-upmanship. Some of these rules actually hold precious wisdom. Hegel’s Paradox, for instance, says, “Man learns from history that man learns nothing from history.” And Clarke’s First Law, coined by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, nails the tricky nature of wisdom: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible he is almost certainly wrong.”
Once in Ireland, I ran across a statement by a nineteenth-century bishop that struck me as particularly profound: “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the complete unimportance of almost everything.” I’ve never been able to track down the source (but that’s unimportant). In any case, Sturgeon’s Revelation, named after science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, gives the same idea a nice modern spin: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”
The workplace has spawned more than its share of such obiter dicta (not to mention crud.) Thus the Dilbert Principle says, “The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.” But Joy’s Law, coined by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, also captures every manager’s sinking sense of despair: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Harried tech workers like to trot out Brooks’s Law, from software engineer Frederick P. Brooks: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” Or as Brooks also put it, “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.”
Impatient bosses often strike back with Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.” (“Come on, I know you can get that baby done in eight …”) In fact, my annoying editor just showed up at the door to remind me that time’s up.
”Don’t be such a deadline Nazi,” I snapped.
“Godwin’s Law,” he replied.
Note: This article of mine appears on the back page of the October Smithsonian: