Hanlon's razor

A few months ago I quoted the aphorism “never attribute malice to what can adequately be explained by stupidity,” and was asked for its source. I had to confess that I had no idea, but I've since managed to look it up.

The expression turns out to have a name, “Hanlon’s Razor,” and a Wikipedia article under that title. But who was Hanlon?

In 2001 a blogger named Quentin Stafford-Fraser published the following email he’d received from someone named Joseph E Bigler in response to something on his blog. Here's what Bigler had to say:

I did a search for Hanlon’s Razor on the internet and was surprised that no one seems to know the origin. The author was my late friend Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pa.

A number of years ago, the people that wrote the Murphy’s laws book decided to publish a second book and asked the public to contribute their own ‘laws” as part of a contest. My friend sent this in and it was accepted and printed with his name in the credits. The ‘prize’ for winning was 10 copies of the new book, one of which Bob gave me.

Bob was a very literate man with a wry sense of humor and I believe the razor “Never attribute malice to what can adequately be explained by stupidity” is his. If you would change the wording on your site to reflect this, I would appreciate it. Bob was a great man. He had a keen sense of history, but unfortunately, illness and an untimely death prevented him from being further published. I think it would be fitting and appropriate if he got the recognition he deserved for this.

The quotation, with that wording, does indeed on page 52 Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong by Arthur Bloch.

That isn’t the oldest version of the idea, however. Some sources I checked pointed out the similarity to the line “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity,” from Heinlein’s 1941 short story “Logic of Empire.” Goethe wrote something vaguely along the same lines in 1774. A more recent and quite possibly independent expression by British writer Charles Pigden appeared in 1985: “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.”

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