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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Pseudoscience 3

The Guide to Mitigating Murphy’s Law


“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” This is Murphy’s Law. This may be the most quoted adage that nobody remembers when they are trying to make a decision. People only remember this when things do go wrong. This saying is used like a bandage for the ego (or pride if you’re a woman). If you screw up, it is not your fault; it was Murphy’s Law coming to screw you, right?


Part 1: A Quarter can be worth a Million
Random Chance vs. Likely Outcome

If you flipped a quarter 100 times what would be the most likely percentage between heads and tails? It is not 50/50, if that is what you were thinking. Mathematically, any 100 flip combinations of heads or tails are as likely as any other, including a 50/50 split. Every flip of the coin has an equal chance of showing either side.

In reality, we will usually see a distribution like this:

(Fig 1.) The black dots represent the final outcome of 100 coin flips

What does this teach us? This teaches us that random chance is exactly that: Random chance. This also teaches us that there are several “zones” of likely outcome.

Murphy’s Law is what happens when events fall into the red and yellow zones, and outside the blue and green zones. The dots in the yellow and red zones represent outcomes that are highly unusual, and are a fairly accurate representation of the outcomes of situations that have no apparent explanation. This is Murphy’s Law at work.

If you shoot 100 men in the chest, you would also see an outcome scatter like this, or if you played 100 hands of poker. Or 1000, or 10,000,000…

Part 2: Scoring in the Red Zone
By its Nature, “Random Chance” is Impossible to Eliminate; so is Murphy’s Law

While you are sleeping comfortably in your bed, dreaming of sugar plums and crotches, what can happen? Anything! An airplane could suffer a catastrophic engine failure and crash into your home, a pack of punk teenagers could break all the windows in your car, or you could wake up and nothing has happened at all. While either of the first two outcomes can and have happened, what will you most likely wake up to? Nothing, of course.

“Red and yellow zone” outcomes happen, and we all suffer them throughout our lives. This is the correct definition of Murphy’s Law; however, more often then not, Murphy’s Law is used as an excuse to explain events and the subsequent outcomes (and the associated consequences) that are in our control.


If a fertile woman has sex with a fertile man without the use of any birth control methods, the woman may become pregnant. If a man has sex with the same woman 48 times over 2 years at absolutely random intervals with no birth control, she has as about a 66% chance of becoming pregnant. If a fertile man has one night stands with 48 fertile women over 2 years, without birth control at absolutely random intervals, each female partner has about a 10% chance of becoming pregnant. However any female partner has about a 66% chance of becoming pregnant. A man is far more likely to impregnate his wife then any single screw, but just as likely to impregnate one of a series of screws.

Part 3: Don’t do anything Stupid
Expect the Best, Prepare for the Worst

All actions have consequences, both good and bad. Criminals, I think, understand this concept more fully then any other group. Let’s say you rob a bank. Do you expect to get a large amount of cash for your efforts? Yes, you do. Otherwise why are you robbing a bank? Will you be caught? Most likely, the FBI has nearly a 100% success ratio of catching bank robbers.

If you know the FBI will most likely catch you, why would you rob the bank? Because you were counting on a “red zone” outcome, even when you knew that a “green/blue zone” outcome would most likely occur. This is not Murphy’s Law. This is being a dumb ass.

Part 4: Reading your Own Palm
Eliminating risks

Murphy’s Law is somewhat a paradox. Over time as person gains knowledge, they can more accurately predict the outcomes of events, but “red zone” events will also have a greater chance of occurring. It is absolutely impossible to be prepared for all random events; however it is not impossible to prepare for events that have a reasonable chance of occurring. Let’s look at an example of a common situation we all face:

Going to work in the morning:

A. Likely: Your car will start
B. Slightly Less Likely: Your car will not start
C. Unlikely: Your car was stolen during the night
D. Highly Unlikely: Your car explodes (a mafia assassin placed a bomb in the wrong vehicle)*

What example(s) are Murphy’s Law? B (to a point) and C. Having your car stolen is a completely random and uncommon event, (unless you live in the ‘hood) and there is no reason why you should expect your car to be stolen on any given morning. This is a great example of Murphy’s Law.

If your car was making strange noises and/or smoking, the “check engine” light was on, and you failed to have your car repaired…this is NOT Murphy’s Law if your car won’t start next time. You should reasonably expect that it won’t. If your car fails to start for no apparent reason, this could be described as Murphy’s Law.

*If you die when your car explodes, and you have willed your entire estate to the Insane Clown Posse instead of your only son, your only son could reasonably call this Murphy’s Law.

There is a fine line between truly random events and predictable events. Again, the ability to predict events is based on a person’s wisdom; but with the more wisdom one gains, the more likely that random catastrophic events will happen. The challenge is to be able to distinguish truly random events from events we had the ability to influence and failed to do so.

Part 5: Review and Conclusion

So, what have we learned?

1. Every decision has consequences.
2. A bad decision and subsequent unfavorable result is usually due to ignorance or the failure to consider all reasonable outcomes.
3. Random, unpredictable events are a fact of life, but not the essence of it.
4. A good decision with a reasonably unpredictable, unfavorable outcome is accurately described as Murphy’s Law*.
5. With time, the chances of you experiencing an unfavorable random event increase, as well as your ability to influence events that happen in your life.

*It is interesting that another Irish adage, “Luck of the Irish”, is the exact opposite of Murphy’s Law.

When you make a mistake, or you see somebody make a mistake, you should try to take everything you can from that experience. This is how you gain wisdom, and how you learn to predict the outcomes of your future decisions. You can choose your fate or let fate choose you.

When something unfortunate happens to you, take stock. Did you have a reasonable opportunity to prevent or at least influence it? Did you see this might happen? Did you ignore the warnings of others? Did Tommy give you advice that you did not follow?

-Tommy Masterson

P.S. I used to love to give advice, and did so anytime sombody asked my opinion. I refuse to give advice now. In my 28 years, I have learned that when sombody askes you for advice, what they really want is validation for whatever they are thinking at the time. If you give advice that conflicts with their thoughts, they will argue with you, even if they know you are right. Oh well, back to drinking rum.


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