In the Name of the Law | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

In the Name of the Law

How to win arguments without really trying

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

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, 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 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 (other than in appropriate contexts, such as discussions of genocide), when an adversary tries it, you have only to say "Godwin's Law" and a trapdoor falls open, plunging your rival into a pool of hungry crocodiles. Sweet, no?

Sweeter still, these little laws allow us to sound intellectual without having to do any homework. That's why people are always citing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. That's also why 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 it lacks smarty-pants heft. What we really need is the Heisenberg Probability Principle, which states that anybody mentioning Heisenberg is likely a pompous twit. (And may I be the first to plead guilty as charged?)

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 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 19th-century cleric that struck me as 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 American spin: "Ninety percent of everything is crud."

The workplace has spawned more than its share of such obiter dicta. 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, 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 cite Brooks' 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: "Work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion." In fact, my 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.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus