Just about everyone has heard of Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will.” And then there are the various well-known corollaries: “Murphy was an optimist.” And, “If something goes wrong, it will happen at the worst possible moment.”
According to Arthur Bloch’s book, Murphy’s Law, and Other Reasons Why Things Go WRONG, published in 1977, the law’s namesake was Captain Ed Murphy, a development engineer from Wright Field Aircraft Lab working at what is now Edwards Air Force Base in 1949. Block published a letter he had received from George E. Nichols which stated that Captain Murphy was frustrated with a strap transducer that was malfunctioning because of an error in the wiring of the strain gauge bridges. He remarked, according to the letter, that “If there is any way to do it wrong, he will” in reference to the technician who had wired the bridges. Nichols said that he assigned Murphy’s Law to that statement and all its associated variations.
Murphy’s law grew out of frustration, and it is usually cited with amusement when something gets messed up. It is a mistake, however, to take the law seriously. It shouldn’t even be taken as a rule of thumb. Because if Murphy’s Law were really true, if it really were one of the laws of physics, then nothing would ever go right. Life would be one huge snafu. Airplanes would not fly, and if they did, they’d fall out of the sky or run into mountains every time they did get off the ground. Cars would never start, and your computer would never boot up right and if it ever did, it would crash and lose every document and every bank transaction that you ever made–especially those that were most critical. Your bank account would then be drained of all its funds by Nigerian princes. Those Nigerian princes would, of course, immediately go to jail—since their attempt at amassing wealth, following Murphy’s dictum, must fail. And then those Nigerian princes would escape the prison, since that would be the last thing their jailers would ever want. But then, those escaped thieving Nigerian princes would promptly fall off a cliff and be consumed by ravenous wolves–who would immediately keel over from food poisoning. And so on.
Murphy’s law is easily falsifiable. For instance a friend of mine about three years ago asked me to build a computer for him. This necessitated a trip to Fry’s where we succeeded in getting all the parts needed to build a computer: a motherboard with CPU, a computer case, memory, graphics card, sound card, hard drive, DVD-RW drive and so on. With the purchase of the CPU, we were able to get a copy of the latest version of Windows on disc at a discounted price.
When we got back to my house, I assembled the parts easily, and then turned the new machine on. It booted up fine. The disc that came with the hard drive did its job of preparing and formatting the new hard drive for use and then the computer assigned the normal C and D drive letters to the hard drive and DVD-RW respectively.
When I put the Windows disc in the drive, the computer found it easily enough and began the rather lengthy process of installing the Windows operating system. It proceeded smoothly, without a hiccup, locating the sound card and graphics card and installing the right drivers for both. After the various reboots that Windows does during an install from scratch, the system came up and worked just as it was supposed to.
In putting a new computer together from scratch, the number of things that can go awry is rather high. When installing Windows, many glitches can easily occur. And yet, on this occasion, nothing went wrong and everything went right.
In science, when experiments are done it is not to prove theories right, but rather to prove them wrong: to falsify them. And all it takes for a theory to be falsified is for it to be wrong once. People were certain all swans were white. But it could not be proven true, since one could not examine every last swan in existence. But it was easily shown to be false when the first black swan was seen in Australia.
Thus, Murphy’s law is falsified every time something goes right: when you stop in time, instead of running into the child chasing the ball into the street. When the Dodgers win a baseball game. When the Clippers don’t lose. When you repair a lamp without electrocuting yourself. When you still have a job at the end of the week. When you pay off a debt. And so on. In reality, most of the time, things do not go wrong.
That’s why it’s news when there’s a school shooting, instead of when there isn’t.