How did I live almost six decades without hearing about Hanlon’s Razor? I read an article in The Wall Street Journal on September 25, 2014, titled The Source of Bad Writing, by Steven Pinker, which described this theorem. Hanlon’s Razor and its corollaries explain almost everything in life.
Hanlon’s Razor states:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Although no one is certain where this saying came from—variations of the adage have been attributed to persons as diverse as William James, Albert Einstein, and Robert Heinlein—it does explain a lot. One variation states:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.
If you want to be even more forgiving, here is a more complete series of postulates derived from Hanlon’s Razor. These statements may not be provable, but I believe them to be true:
- Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.
- Never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice.
- Never assume ignorance when forgivable error will suffice
- Never assume error when information you hadn’t adequately accounted for will suffice.
In The Wall Street Journal article the theorem was used to explain why so much writing is bad. According to author Steven Pinker, bad writing results from knowledgeable people simply not understanding that not everyone knows what they know. He says:
The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
What is required, according to Pinker, is that writers get feedback from their readers to find out what is unintelligible in their writing.
How many times have you thought someone had it in for you? I think it is human nature to jump to this conclusion when we are thwarted by bosses and co-workers, spouses and annoying relatives, bad drivers and government clerks. The reality is that the people we encounter in life are simply ignorant or have not considered our point of view, just as we are probably not considering theirs when we jump to the conclusion that they want to harm us.
In my own life, I can apply Hanlon’s Razor and its corollaries to:
- The idiot cab driver who cut me off on the freeway yesterday, who probably just didn’t see my vehicle when he realized his lane was ending.
- The parties in a mediation who can’t resolve their dispute, when I can see clearly what they ought to do.
- My family members, when they again do something I have asked them many times not to do. They probably just forgot.
- My nemeses, when they behave in ways seemingly designed to thwart me, but probably are just pursuing their own misguided agendas.
I’m not saying that there aren’t times when people want to hurt you. But those times are far fewer than we first believe. Now that I know about Hanlon’s Razor, I’ll try to remember that it’s ignorance and stupidity that causes problems, not necessarily malice.
Can Hanlon’s Razor explain some of the problems in your life?