Friday, July 23, 2010

Column for 22/07/10

WHEN radio presenter Jon Gaunt called an interviewee a Nazi for suggesting couples who smoked shouldn’t be allowed to be foster carers, he was immediately accused of trivialising Nazi atrocities and sacked. But in many corners of the world it was seen as a confirmation of a little known law, known as Godwin’s Law, which states that if any discussion or argument goes on sufficiently long, one party will compare the other to Hitler or the Nazis. The law was first termed 20 years ago by US lawyer Mike Godwin, after observing participants in early internet chat forums. That got me thinking: what other laws govern our lives? Obviously the laws of motion, gravity, thermodynamics, and other brain-boxy science stuff that I don’t completely understand, but there are a whole bunch more.
We all know about Murphy’s Law, the old adage that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, which is attributed to the American aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy, Jr. You might even be aware of Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives, which further states that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible time.
In fact there are a whole slew of laws for various things that actually have practical relevance in our lives. For instance, there’s the Peter Principle, a law formulated by Dr Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull that states that in a hierarchy, people are promoted until they reach their ‘level of incompetence’ i.e. where they are no longer competent at doing their jobs and therefore unable to gain another promotion. This is countered by the cartoonist Scott Adams’ Dilbert Principle which states that the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place they can do least damage: management. Then there’s Gall’s Law, from the author John Gall, which tells us that a complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works, and states the inverse that a complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work; you have to start over again, using a simple, working system. Now if that isn’t a pertinent statement that many people would do well remembering in modern society, I’m not sure what is.
There are specific laws for any number of areas, including politics. For instance, the US democrat politician Pat Moynihan coined Moynihan’s Law, which states that the amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the number of complaints about human rights violations heard from there, i.e. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.
There are also laws for journalism. My particular favourite law is the one set out by the Australian editor John Bagsund which says that if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be an error of some kind in what you have written. This law is referred to, in tongue in cheek fashion, as Muphry’s Law.
While I doubt the idea that these celestial laws in some way govern our lives, they are worth sticking to. Many old laws and adages offer sage advice that can help us in our everyday existences. However, with all this clever advice flying around, it can be easy to get confused. After all, to paraphrase Clarke’s fourth law: “For each and every law, there is an equal and opposite law.”

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