"Murphy's Laws" and the Harvard Speculative Society

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Jun 23 02:20:33 UTC 1999

This is all quite interesting, but I seem to recall a different genesis,
via which it was originally a claim by Edmund Wilson, critically assessing
the appeal of popular mystery novels in a put-down called "Who Cares Who
Killed Roger Ackroyd?", that 90% of mystery writing (or was it mystery and
science fiction writing?  that would make more sense in the light of the
anecdote) was crud, crap, or some equipollent and more or less colorful
term.  It was then Sturgeon's reply that 90% of ALL writing (or of
everything? I don't recall how far the generalization went) was crap.   Can
anyone else either con- or disconfirm this version? (Of course "Sturgeon's
Law" has the same signification on either story, but I prefer mine.)


>-----Original Message-----
>From: Bob Fitzke <fitzke at VOYAGER.NET>
>Date: Monday, June 21, 1999 16:17
>Subject: Re: "Murphy's Laws" and the Harvard Speculative Society
>>We used to refer to this as the Philosophy of Fecal Monism (circa 1950)
>>Bruce K. Dykes wrote:
>>> It was later amended to:
>>> 90% of everything is crap.
>>> Bruce
>Ripped from the TS FAQ:
>What is Sturgeon's Law?
>In his 1972 interview with David G Hartwell (published in The New York
>Review of Science Fiction #7 and #8, March and April 1989) Sturgeon says:
>"Sturgeon's Law originally was 'Nothing is always absolutely so.' The other
>thing was known as 'Sturgeon's Revelation'"
>The first reference I can find in his oeuve appears in the March 1958 issue
>of Venture Science Fiction, where he wrote:
>"I repeat Sturgeon's Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty
>years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who
>used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion
>was that ninety percent of sf is crud.
>"The Revelation: Ninety percent of everything is crud.
>"Corallary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science
>fiction is admitted and if is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than
>the existence of trash anywhere.
>"Corallary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any
>It is this Revelation that has now become known as Sturgeon's Law (I've not
>heard the corallaries used before, or since). There is some debate over the
>last word, and when/how it was first used. The most reliable account comes
>from James Gunn's in his item in The New York Review of Science Fiction #85,
>September 1995 In contrast, the cover blurb for the 1968 Pyramid edition of
>"A Way Home" includes an obviously invented scene complete with dialogue and
>facial expressions; well maybe, but perhaps we should stay with the facts
>and leave the speculations to masters like Theodore Sturgeon.
>As a codicil, the author of a Spanish web site refers to an old Arab fable
>I'd not encountered before:
>A young Caliph asked the Great Vizier how he could tell if a poem was good
>or bad. "Always assume it is bad", he was told. "You'll only be wrong one
>time in a hundred".
>Related entries from the Jargon File:
>Sturgeon's Law /prov./ "Ninety percent of everything is crap". Derived from
>a quote by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once said, "Sure,
>90% of science fiction is crud. That's because 90% of everything is crud."
>Oddly, when Sturgeon's Law is cited, the final word is almost invariably
>changed to `crap'. Compare Hanlon's Razor, Ninety-Ninety Rule. Though this
>maxim originated in SF fandom, most hackers recognize it and are all too
>aware of its truth.
>Hanlon's Razor /prov./ A corollary of Finagle's Law, similar to Occam's
>Razor, that reads "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately
>explained by stupidity." The derivation of the Hanlon eponym is not
>definitely known, but a very similar remark ("You have attributed conditions
>to villainy that simply result from stupidity.") appears in "Logic of
>Empire", a 1941 story by Robert A. Heinlein, who calls it the `devil theory'
>of sociology. Heinlein's popularity in the hacker culture makes plausible
>the supposition that `Hanlon' is derived from `Heinlein' by phonetic
>corruption. A similar epigram has been attributed to William James, but
>Heinlein more probably got the idea from Alfred Korzybski and other
>practitioners of General Semantics. Quoted here because it seems to be a
>particular favorite of hackers, often showing up in sig blocks, fortune
>cookie files and the login banners of BBS systems and commercial networks.
>This probably reflects the hacker's daily experience of environments created
>by well-intentioned but short-sighted people. Compare Sturgeon's Law.
>[Editor's Note: JE Pournelle's Napoleonic variant substitutes 'incompetence'
>for 'stupidity']
>Ninety-Ninety Rule /n./ "The first 90% of the code accounts for the first
>90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the
>other 90% of the development time." Attributed to Tom Cargill of Bell Labs,
>and popularized by Jon Bentley's September 1985 "Bumper-Sticker Computer
>Science" column in "Communications of the ACM". It was there called the
>"Rule of Credibility", a name which seems not to have stuck.

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