lawsIt’s possible that if you took all the words written or spoken that lay down the law of things and placed them end-to-end along the (equatorial) waistline of the earth, you’d be at it for seven lifetimes.

What laws, you ask? For starters, there are basic laws of science which cover the simple things like thermodynamics, astronomy, physics, biology, and chemistry. Some of these laws were discovered haphazardly, such as when someone sits in, then jumps out the bathtub running down the street yelling Eureka! but forgetting to put on his toga. Some laws don’t sound like anything that they are supposed to govern: Harmonic Law has nothing to do with harmonicas but with planetary orbits.

Curiously, there isn’t agreement on how many basic physical laws there are: some say about 18 basic physical laws that govern the universe, others say there are more. It’s a bit disconcerting that the people who are supposed to know such things can’t agree. We the people NOT debating the numbers think it prudent to KNOW what the laws are just in case we are breaking some.

Beyond the basic laws we can trip through the turnstiles into the quantum world and find Einstein’s laws that touch on curving spacetime and how constant the speed of light is and everything around E=MC2. I heard recently that Stephen Hawking is working on some new theoretical physics laws, which he might do when he visits Canada next year for a month at the University of Waterloo. Theoretically, one day, I am certain someone will prove that quantum mechanics CAN fix cars. If you ask them nicely.

Not to be outdone by the pure and applied sciences, social sciences apparently have laws too, but it’s a minefield about how (by definition) scientific the social sciences are and this is not the place to debate the philosophy of science. Suffice it to say the word law crops up from time to time in all of the various social sciences.

Scientific laws might govern our world, but operate outside of our day-to-day awareness. When an apple falls on your kitchen floor, do you say, “Oh look, gravity IS real. Newton was right.” I didn’t think so.  Yet you know Newton on some level, or at least his Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Either that, or you believe that Newton somehow stumbled up and interpreted the doctrine of karma; however, that is not within the scope of this post, and not anything science and its laws know what questions to ask, let alone answer.

Most of us are more familiar with the laws we are sometimes notified of: those that get us speeding tickets, parking tickets, and for the bad guys and girls, jail time. These laws flow from legislation which result in among other things, what you get to take across borders; who can marry whom; what percentage of reserve the banks have to hold to cover deposits, what days shops can stay open, what percentage of mouse droppings is acceptable in the food supply; laws that say you cannot kidnap or steal the object(s) of your desire (darn!); that say you have to report a work-related injury soon after it happens, that tell you what days you can water you lawn, put out the garbage; what kinds of movies can be let into the country for viewing and what kinds of taxes will be collected. These are often the boring laws, unless you find one still on the books from the 1800s that state what times public flogging is permissible allowing you to plan accordingly. Surprisingly, some remain.

Within the home, it’s quite possible that there are laws which govern cooking and folding laundry. You’ve heard the because I said so laws, used mostly by parental units to keep kids in line. And we’ve all been around long enough to know that ignorance of the law is never a good defence, as in “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that!

What is a law? Seems there are different types of those: there’s common law, canon law (which is religious), and the very polite civil law. There are different ways of working with laws, too. Sometimes people and organizations work strictly to the letter of the law and can said to be in compliance — as in not, technically, breaking the law. Yet there something beyond the letter of the law and that’s the spirit of the law — which often matches compliance with what’s fair and moral, and like karma, is out of scope for this post.


Then there are the OTHER laws, which no-one generally pays attention to until it’s too late. Clarke’s Law for example that states, Sufficiently advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice. Why is this a law? It’s absolute conjecture on my part, but when we are using 18th Century models of politics and business and 17th century and earlier models of organization, together with late 19th/early 20th century models of economics, I do wonder if cluelessness is rampant and figure that malice cannot be in play that much: it takes too much energy: the law of conservation (basic science law) says that logically, cluelessness over malice is simply easier.

That other law, Murphy’s Law is simple: whatever can go wrong will go wrong, or variations thereof.  I think the founder of the Pessimist School to Avoid Disappointment (PSAD) fell into a pile of laws and came up with that one. For those of you who write or edit, there is a variation of Murphy’s Law known as Muphry’s Law and it states that “if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

My favourite law in the whole wild world (purposefully replaced wild for wide) is this one: The Law of Unintended Consequences (LUC). You know that law. It might have been around for a while, but was formally named by a sociologist, who wondered about “unanticipated consequences” of what he called “purposive social action.”  I take that to mean social planning with a purpose, which I HOPE is what he meant. At any rate, he mused that it is not possible to anticipate everything.  What it suggests is that any purposeful action will produce some unintended, unanticipated, and usually unwanted consequences.

The law of unintended consequences was intended for ideally, thoughtful, purposeful action.  Today there’s a lot of very short term action, the only purpose of which is to make the griping go away. But unintended consequences follow even those actions. In fact, LUC is in effect whenever someone has not thought something through or talked with enough people, or seeks immediate gratification or needs a quick fix. Or, just doesn’t think, even though they think they’ve thought enough.

LUC became such an evident and widesweeping law to me a few years ago, that I developed a by-law of my own: every solution has its own problems.

LUC was in place when a certain city introduced bike helmets for all cyclists, and the city politicians couldn’t figure out why all of a sudden the under 20-year olds weren’t riding bikes anymore.  (Hint: something to do with not cool).

We all know that Australia is living with the consequences of introducing non-native toads and things onto that teeny continent. Other examples?

– Because strong passwords for computer access control systems causes many users to write their passwords down (as they are now impossible to remember), it completely negates the security advantage of strong passwords.

– Digital video recorders were first marketed as an easy way to time-shift TV viewing. But with the increase in advertising minutes per hour (to 25% of your viewing time), the big attraction became the ability to skip over all the ads. The unintended consequence of the broadcasters’ decision to increase the number of ad-minutes was that it drove viewers to find ways of avoiding ads altogether.

– The U.S.’s “Three-strikes laws” are intended to be tough on criminals, but APPEARS encourage them to murder people to avoid getting caught, as the sentence for murder is no worse than the consequences of being caught for the third time.”

– Archeologists who enlisted some locals in their project to locate bones paid by the number of fragments were mortified to learn that larger bones were being smashed into smaller bits.

– ANY time you tell someone not to do something, you can be certain that sometime, somewhere, someone, somewhere absolutely will.

Who said the law isn’t any fun?


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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2 Responses to THE LAW OF WHAT?

  1. scimmia says:

    So, where might the law of averages ( fit?

    • me says:

      Dear Scimmia: My apologies for such a long delay in responding. The Law of Averages sneaks in wherever it can, blanding the colours and flavours and textures of differences, or to set bell curves for grades, or set the average increment in salaries. I tend to use it ONLY as a starting point.

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