In ancient times, people had wisdom, aphorisms and rules of thumb they would put into Almanacs. In the current lingo, they’re called mental models. If you’re interested in this stuff Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg is a great book on mental models written in narrative form. Here’s a list of some of my favorite bits of knowledge from around the web — some because they are useful, others because they are just fun.
Ideas Named after People
- Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. The feeling that something you just learned about seems to appear everywhere
- Bechdel Test. A method for evaluating the portrayal of women in fiction taken from a comic from Alison Bechdel from 1985. The test states that the movie has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man.
- Betteridge’s Law. Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no. There’s a great Betteridge’s Law Twitter feed.
- Devil’s Advocate. We all know what this is, but I never knew it was named for The Devil. The advocatus diaboli (Latin for Devil’s advocate) used to be a position in the Catholic Church. That person would take the position of The Devil and argued against canonization (sainthood) to uncover any ungodly traits or misdeeds of the candidate.
- Dunning-Kruger Effect. The term comes from the article “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” It’s a scientific description of someone who is too dumb to know it. Here’s John Cleese with a video explanation of the effect. Stephen Fry has a good one too.
- Godwin’s Law. If an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler. The corollary is that the thread immediately ends and this person loses the argument.
- Goodhart’s Law. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Anytime a metric becomes a target, people will try to game it.
- Hanlon’s Razor. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
- Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest solution is most likely correct. Though they’re historically unrelated, I tend to think of Occam’s Razor with the Gordian Knot. This was the story of Alexander the Great who untangled an impossible knot by cutting it with his sword. I always think of Occam’s Razor as the act of cutting the Gordian Knot.
- Overton Window. The acceptable spectrum of political opinion. As popular opinion becomes more liberal or conservative, the range of acceptable opinions in the Overton Window shifts accordingly.
- Parkinson’s Law. Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
- Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. In the 1957 book Parkinson’s Law, Parkinson discussed a budget committee discussing a nuclear reactor and a bike shed. The reactor was complicated and esoteric so no one wanted to discuss it. Everyone had an opinion on the bike shed, no matter how unimportant it was.
- Sayre’s Law. In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is proportional to the value of the issues at stake. My favorite formulation is Academic Politics Are So Vicious Because the Stakes Are So Small.
- Stigler’s law of Eponymy. University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. (Added 7/2020)
- Streisand Effect. The phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. It is named for Barbara Streisand who in 2003 tried to get the picture of her house deleted from an environmental study of 12,000 coastline photographs. The lawsuit and the ensuring coverage raised the viewership of the photo from 6 to 400,000. You can see Barbara’s house here.