Stop Naming Adages After People and Calling Them Laws
Without leaving the letter M: Moore’s Law, Murphy’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law, Mooers’s Law. I’m not saying an adage should never, ever be named after a person. I’ll admit, Moore’s Law and Murphy’s Law have a certain catchiness to them. But the trend of taking a maxim and calling it Person’s Law has resulted in dozens and dozens of these things being produced, and it makes my head spin. Soon every fact or aphorism will be Somebody’s Law. Not only have such adage laws become a cliché, but, as I have found when researching this article, many of the laws are either not named after the person who came up with the idea (ignorance), or are named by the author after themselves (egotism). They are also called “laws” when they aren’t really laws to lend the ideas more credence than they deserve, or at least more memetic value. It’s hard for me not to take on a negative tone in this article after being exposed to such egotism and ignorance. Apologies in advance.
Newton earned his laws. So did Asimov. But now any lazy aphorism can lend your name immortality if you push for it hard enough. Let me give it a go:
If an adage is named after a person and called a law, there is a 50% chance the law is named after the wrong person, and if not, there is a 50% chance it was named by the author after themselves.
Tell your friends. Ironically, I have basically stolen Stigler’s Law here (see below). Oh well, nothing is new under the sun.
Here are some popular adage laws. There are so many of them, but I bet you’ve heard of at least half. Special thanks to Wikipedia’s list of eponymous laws.:
People overestimate the impact of a given technology initially, then underestimate it. Basically, when the hype bubble bursts, people are disappointed. After that, things return to a reasonable baseline. Named after Roy Amara, the futurist who created the idea.
An increase in hardware computing power will be met with an increase in software demand. Very similar to Wirth’s law. Named after Andy Grove, Intel’s former CEO, and Bill Gates, Microsoft’s former CEO. Based on an old joke that, “what Andy gives, Bill takes away.”
In real-world data sets, the leading digit is much more likely to be a ’1’ than any other digit: the chance is about 30% Named after Frank Benford, who originally called it the Law of Anomalous Numbers, though it was mentioned first by Simon Newcomb decades prior..
“Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available.” Stated by Gregory Benford the sci-fi author, not to be confused with Frank Benford, the physicist and engineer who lends their name to the first Benford’s Law. Because we have two “Benford’s laws”, maybe we should stick to Frank Benford’s original name for his law: the Law of Anomalous Numbers.
Headlines which end in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”. (This really only makes sense for yes-or-no question headlines.) Studies have tried to disprove this law by showing that articles which have yes-or-no headlines are more likely to be answered in the body of the article “yes” than “no”, but these studies are clearly missing the point of the law. Named after the tech journalist Ian Betteridge, who did not create the principle, though he claimed he did. Also referred to earlier as “Davis’ law”, with no reference to who Davis is.
The energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than the energy needed to produce it. Originally called the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle by Alberto Brandolini on Twitter, though the idea has been around since before Twitter was even a thing.
“Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later” because it takes time for new members of a team to become productive, and because tasks are not infinitely divisible and adding people creates communication and collaboration overhead. Created by Fred Brooks, author of the Mythical Man-Month, and named after himself.
Quantitative social metrics often corrupt the process they are intended to measure because people will try to game the metric. Created by the social scientist Donald T. Campbell. Although this law is often worded differently than Goodhart’s law, as described by Campbell it is basically indistinguishable from Goodhart’s law, which was stated before Campbell’s law.
Nothing is ever built on schedule or within budget. A patently false child of Hofstadter’s law and Murphy’s law. This one is named after an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, but was created by Robert A. Heinlein in one of his novels.
If you don’t know why something is a certain way, leave it alone until you do. If you see a fence or other barrier across a road, some people will immediately try to remove it, but they may be ignorant of the reason for the fence and so could be making a mistake. Named after Gilbert Keith Chesterton who stated it in one of his books. The allegory is clever and original, but the underlying idea is not and is essentially a restating of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” or of the Precautionary principle, etc. It’s not technically an adage law, but I included it because I like it.
Ooh, three laws by one person
- When a famous, elderly scientist claims something is possible, they are almost certainly right. But when they claim something is impossible, they are almost certainly wrong.
- The only way to know the limit of what’s possible is to cross that limit and find out what’s impossible.
- “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
By the sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. The third one is the most famous, though also the least original, as very similar things have been said before by other authors, including Isaac Asimov: “An uninformed public tends to confuse scholarship with magicianry.”
Any system has a structure which reflects the communication structure of the organization which produced it. By Melvin Conway, a computer programmer, not to be confused with John Conway of Conway’s Game of Life. Named by Fred Brooks of Brooks’ Law.
The best way to get the right answer on the Internet isn’t to request it, but to post the wrong answer. Named after the programmer Ward Cunningham, inventor of the concept of the wiki. Named by Steven McGeady, former Intel exec, though Cunningham denies actually having created the idea.
Incompetent workers are systematically moved to management, because that’s where they can do the least damage. Created by Scott Adams, and named after his comic strip, Dilbert.
“Anytime someone puts a lock on something you own, against your wishes, and doesn't give you the key, they're not doing it for your benefit.” Named after its author, Cory Doctorow, a blogger and journalist (see craphound.com.
The idea that drug discovery is becoming slower and more expensive. Named creatively ’Eroom’ as a pun on Moore’s law, as it describes an opposite effect.
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.” By the author John Gall.
If you think the news is accurate in areas outside your field of expertise, you must have forgotten how inaccurate the news is about things you’re knowledgeable about. Created by filmmaker Michael Crichton and named after the famous physicist Murray Gell-Mann in a bid to lend the idea credence.
“As an online discussions grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Addendum: If you’re the one who brought up Hitler or the Nazis, you lose whatever debate is occuring. Created by Mike Godwin, and named by him after himself. May be considered a description of reductio ad Hitlerum, which was described earlier.
“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The idea was formulated by economist Charles Goodhart, though the succinct and generalized wording people are more familiar with was written by anthropologist Marilyn Strathern.
“Any sufficiently complicated C or Fortran program contains an ad hoc, informally specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of Common Lisp.” Coined by Philip Greenspun and named after himself. It was not even part of a list of rules, and was simply called the “tenth rule” for added memorability. There is no ninth rule.
The economic value of computation increases with the square root of the increase in computing speed. Named by Grosch after himself, though the idea predates his statement of it.
“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law.” A self-referential law appropriately coined by Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach. He named it after himself, which I find to be somehow appropriate.
Paying attention to an automatic task can disrupt it. Named for psychologist George Humphrey. Also called, the centipede effect, in my opinion a more fitting name, after a poem referred to by Humphrey when he introduced the idea:
A centipede was happy — quite! Until a toad in fun Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?” This raised her doubts to such a pitch, She fell exhausted in the ditch Not knowing how to run.
— Katherine Craster, 1871
“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” The idea is that you should try to utilize the intelligence of people who don’t work for you. Stated by Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy in response to Bill Gates calling Microsoft an “IQ monopolist”.
“No one reads; if someone does read, he doesn’t understand, if he understands, he immediately forgets.” (Perhaps this explains why many of the laws in this list are not original ideas.) Created by sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem in his faux review of the nonexistant book One Human Minute.
“The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” Named by journalist Helen Lewis after herself.
“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Named after Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, but created by Eric S. Raymond, the creator of Linus’ Law.
A miracle will happen to a person about once per month. This is based on the fact that a large number of events happen to a person every day, so even very unlikely events will surely occur. Created by and named after mathematician John Littlewood.
The value of a system grows as the square of the number of users on the system. Named for and attributed to Robert Metcalfe, though he originally talked about communication devices, rather than users.
Disappointingly not a cow-based play on Moore’s law, Mooers’ law states that an information retrieval system will not be used when it is more troublesome for a user to have information than for them not to. This can either be due to the information retrieval system being difficult to use, or because the information obtained is inconvenient or conflicts with the person’s interests. Created by computer scientist Calvin Mooers.
The idea that computers double in power every two years. More specifically, that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years. It may or may not be slowing now, depending who you ask. There are endless variations on Moore’s Law I have excluded from this list. Created by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, though the exact rate of doubling was originally every one year, and Moore revised his prediction later on.
“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Named after aerospace engineer Edward Murphy Jr. who once said something along those lines, though the statement predates even his birth. Around the time it was named after Edward Murphy, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss wanted it to be called Strauss’ law, though he also did not create it.
Internet connection speed for high-end users grows by 50% per year. (Combined with the faster Moore’s law, this implies users will remain bottlenecked by bandwidth.) Since its publication in 1998, it has been shockingly accurate. Created by Jakob Nielsen and named by him after himself.
“All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.” Created by John O’Sullivan, who named the law after himself and, without irony, called it “an eternal truth”, despite it probably being mostly a load of shit.
Work expands to fill the time you allot for it. (Asimov’s corrolary: In ten hours per day, you have twice the time to fall behind in your commitments as in five hours per day.) Created by C. Northcote Parkinson and named by him after himself.
Increases in safety are met with increases in recklessness. Named after economist Sam Peltzman, who first noted the association. Author’s note: this does not mean increases in safety do not lead to a net decrease in injury.
Without some explicit sign of humour, it’s very difficult to tell a genuine extremist from somebody parodying one. Based on a statement by Nathan Poe in 2005, originally in reference specifically to Creationists and people parodying them. There are multiple examples of this idea which predate Poe’s statement. For example, Jerry Schwarz said in 1983, “if you submit a satiric item without [an explicit sign of humour], no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.”
“Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Named after Jon Postel. The only law I know which is worded in the imperative. Probably for good reason.
“Technology is dominated by two types of people, those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.” Created and named by Archibald Putt (a pseudonym).
“Any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can't think of how to break it.” Created in this form by Bruce Schneier, and named by Cory Doctorow, of Doctorow’s Law, though the idea is not original. One interesting example of prior art is a statement made by Edgar Allan Poe about secret writing: “Few persons can be made to believe that it is not quite an easy thing to invent a method of secret writing which shall baffle investigation. Yet it may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.”
“A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches could never be sure.” Misattributed to Lee Segall, and then misspelled “Segal”.
An institution which is the solution to a problem will try to preserve the problem. Named after its creator, Clay Shirky.
No scientific discovery is named after the person who discovered it. Ironically named by statistician Stephen Stigler, who attributes it to sociologist Robert K. Merton, though this attribution is also false.
“Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Coined by Theodore Sturgeon as a retort to the idea that ninety percent of science fiction is crap.
Government spending will increase as the population votes for more and more public services. (It seems, as in cooking, that adding is much easier than taking away.) Named after German economist Adolph Wagner
Software gets slower more quickly than hardware gets faster. Named after Niklaus Wirth, who discussed it, but attributed by Wirth to Martin Reiser, though he also was not the originator of the idea. Also erroneously called Page’s law after Google founder Larry Page.
“As a discussion about AI grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Skynet or paperclip maximizers approaches 100%.” This one has the honor of being the only law on this list which I didn’t know about in advance, but which I nevertheless knew would exist and be named by the author after himself. I deduced this based solely on the author’s odious personality. Even worse, Eliezer Yudkowsky renamed it from “Yudkowsky’s Law” to “Yudkowsky’s 84th Law” since he believes there will likely be at least 83 other laws associable to his name more important than this one. Let me propose one: “Yudkowsky’s First Law: Yudkowsky will never pull his head out of his ass.”
Every program grows until it tries to send email. Programs which can’t grow like this are replaced by ones which can. Created by Jamie Zawinski.