Eponymous Laws: Part 2

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Podcast Transcript

In a previous episode, I went through a list of eponymous laws. These were laws, general rules, or sometimes even scientific laws that were named after people.

However, the eponymous laws I went through only scratched the surface of the eponymous Laws that are out there. There are all sorts of laws, rules, and dictums which bear someone’s name. 

So, because it was so popular the first time, hang on for Eponymous Laws Part 2 on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

We might as well start this episode of Eponymous Laws, one of the laws that is very familiar to anyone who has spent any amount of time on the internet: Godwin’s Law.

Godwin’s Law has become a central part of Internet culture, and it actually dates back to before the World Wide Web was invented. The law was coined by an American attorney named Mike Godwin, and it was with respect to Usenet groups at the time. However, since then, it has been applied to any sort of online discussion, forum, or chat room. 

Godwin’s Law states that as any online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic), the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches 100%. 

It is also very similar to the logical fallacy, which has become known as reductio ad Hitlerum.

Godwin’s Law was actually added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2012. There was a paper published in 2021 by a team of researchers from Harvard to try to verify Godwin’s law by analyzing posts on Reddit, but they couldn’t find anything statistically meaningful.

That being said, if you’ve spent any amount of time online, there is a good chance that you have probably seen Godwin’s Law in action. 

Another law of the internet is one that might not have heard of but one that you will probably grasp immediately: Cunningham’s Law.

Cunningham’s law was coined by American computer programmer and the creator of the first wiki, Ward Cunningham. As with Godwin’s law, this too, dates back to the early days of the internet on Usenet groups. 

Cunningham’s Law states that “the best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.”

People are more ready to correct someone who is wrong than they are willing to help someone who honestly doesn’t know. 

I have experienced some form of this whenever I get something wrong in an episode. In fact, I usually don’t even have to get something wrong. Just saying something the wrong way or using a colloquial phrase will get people trying to correct me online. 

However, I seldom hear anything if someone likes an episode. 

Some of my favorite eponymous laws come from the world of economics. Among those, my favorite is probably Gresham’s law. If you’ve studied economics, you are probably familiar with Gresham’s Law, but if you haven’t, you might not have heard of it. 

Gresham’s Law was coined in 1860 by the Scottish economist Henry Dunning Macleod. He named the law after the 16th-century English financier Thomas Gresham.

Gresham’s Law states that “bad money drives out good money.

This might not be something you have experience with if you live in a country with a single, someone stable currency. 

The origins actually go back to the ancient world and the production of coinage. 

In an effort to raise money, various kings and emperor would often debase their currency by issuing coins that had slightly less silver. Let’s say you had a coin that consisted of 90% silver. 

You could issue a new coin with the same face value, but only contains 85% silver. With that extra silver, you could issue more coins, effectively creating money. 

When a debasement in coinage happens, people will horde the older coins with a higher silver content and spend the coins with a lower silver content to get rid of them. 

So the bad money, aka the lower silver content coins, drives out the good money. 

You might experience something like this if you go on vacation in another country. You might get some foreign currency to spend and have some left over when you come home.

If the airport accepts both the local currency and your currency, you have every incentive to spend the local currency, which will be useless once you return home. 

Another eponymous law is something I’ve considered doing an episode on, but I’m not sure I could fill an entire episode with is Gell-Mann amnesia.

Gell-Man amnesia is named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Caltech, Murray Gell-Mann.  The term was coined in 2002 by the novelist Michael Crichton. 

Gell-Mann amnesia is something you might have experienced. It refers to the tendency of experts in a field to find media coverage about their field to be riddled with errors. This doesn’t have to be an academic field, just anything someone knows a lot about personally. News stories will often botch their coverage of it because they aren’t experts in that field.

The amnesia part comes in because you then go on to read some other story that you aren’t an expert in and assume that for that story, you forget all the errors they made and assume they got everything right. 

Crichton named it after Murry Gell-Mann just because he was famous and had talked with him about it once. 

The corollary to this is known as Kroll’s Law of Media, which says, “Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge.”

One of the fundamental laws that the internet was built around is known as Metcalfe’s law. Metcalfe’s law is named after Robert Metcalfe, one of the founders of the internet and the co-creator of Ethernet networking protocol. 

The law states that the financial value or influence of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

This is why it is so hard for people to leave social media platforms because that is where everyone is. 

It is also why so many internet startups are willing to lose money at first to grow their user base. If you create a large enough base of users, the theory goes, you can create enough value that it would be difficult for them to leave, and it would make the company more valuable.

Another law that I’m sure everyone has no problem accepting is known as Sutton’s Law. Sutton’s law simply states, “Go where the money is.” 

When investigative journalists are researching a story, they are often told to follow the money. 

The name of the law comes from the famous bank robber Willie Sutton. When asked why he robbed banks, he simply replied, “Because that is where the money is.”

Something else you might have heard before and are probably familiar with is Acton’s dictum

Acton’s dictum is named after the historian John Dalberg-Acton, the 1st Baron Acton, who served in the British parliament in the 19th century. Acton’s dictum states that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The full version came from a letter he wrote to a college, Mandell Creighton, in April 1887, where he wrote: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Another law that you have probably experienced is known as Brandolini’s law. The law is named after the Italian computer programmer Alberto Brandolini. 

The law states The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.

Basically, anyone can just make a statement without any evidence or support. For example, the Earth is flat. It requires no actual proof beyond an assertion. However, disproving it requires far more effort than simply making an assertion. It requires math and science, not just assertions. 

One of my favorite laws that I love asserting whenever people post articles online is Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.

It was coined by a British technology journalist, Ian Betteridge, in 2009. It states that “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

You have probably seen these sorts of news stories on television. “Can eating nothing by peaches cure cancer?”  Well, no, eating nothing but peaches cannot cure cancer. 

The reason why so many stories are phrased as a question that can be answered negatively is that if they had enough facts and research, they would word it as a statement of fact. 

As Betterridge himself said, “This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”

Another good eponymous law to remember when reading the news is Hanlon’s razor.  Various forms of Hanlon’s razor have been around for at least 100 years, but the term was named after Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in a 1980 book about Murphy’s Law. 

Hanlon’s razor states that you should “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

The premise is that there are very few people who are deliberately bad, but there are a whole lot of people who are stupid or perhaps just in over their heads. 

An alternative form of it says, “Do not invoke conspiracy as an explanation when ignorance and incompetence will suffice, as conspiracy implies intelligence.”

Too often, people reach for elaborate theories to explain how the world works when, in reality, it is something much simpler. This is just a specific version of Occam’s Razor.

A scientific version of “it’s too good to be true” is Twyman’s law.  It was established by market researcher Tony Twyman, who stated that “Any data that looks interesting or different is usually wrong.”

Part of it is simply statistical regression to the mean. If there is some outlying data that looks out of place, the odds are greater that there was a problem with the data collection or some sort of error, not something that is actually an interesting value.

The final law I want to cover is actually only a law in the world of science fiction…so far. It is Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, created by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. 

Asimov created his laws of robotics for many of his novels dealing with robots. He created the law to explain how robots could safely exist in a world alongside humans. 

He originally created three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. 

However, he later found a flaw in his three laws, which could allow for a robot to harm humans. He then fixed this problem by creating a “Zeroth Law” to precede the initial three: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

While these laws were written for fictional robots, some people feel that these robotic laws might form the basis of rules for robots in the future. 

Of course, robots today are nowhere near a level of sophistication to understand such laws, and there is little danger of a Roomba going wild. 

Once again, these are far from the only Eponymous Laws, even after two episodes, which only goes to prove Gary’s Law, which says, ‘There is always something more to be said on a subject.”