Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hanlon's Razor

Hanlon’s Razor is an adage submitted to a book on Murphy’s Laws by Robert J Hanlon. It holds "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."  A paraphrase is "Assume stupidity, not malice."

Similar comments have previously been expressed::

- Napoleon Bonaparte: "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."

- Robert A Heinlein’s 1941 short story Logic of Empire: "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity";

- Heinlein’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice” (there is also an alternative ending: “…but keep your eyes open”).

- Grey’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice."

- A common British version by Sir Bernard Ingham: “Cock-up before conspiracy”. The full quote is “Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.”

- From Wikipedia:
A practical observation on the risks of stupidity was made by the German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord in Truppenfuhrung, 1933: "I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!”
Practical examples where the principle can be applied:

- The US Government relied on the presence of WMD to justify the invasion of Iraq. No WMD were found. Some believe that the justification was part of a Government conspiracy to invade Iraq, that the WMD argument was known to be untrue but relied upon nonetheless.  Stupidity or conspiracy?

- The US authorities failed to act on intel about extremists taking flight lessons, but not how to land, and to act on reports that Muslim extremists planned to fly planes into buildings. It is argued that therefore the US was part of a conspiracy to let 9/11 happen.  Stupidity or conspiracy?

- “I haven’t received my tax refund cheque. I think the government is trying to screw me.”  Stupidity or malice?

-  "My brother didn't send me a birthday cartd."  Oversight or malice?

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