The Eponymous Principles of Management : The Murphy’s Law and Its Variants – The Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives

Murphy’s Law has ‘folk’ adage variant, known as Finagle Law, which reads as “Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment.

Finagle has been used in the USA, as a verb meaning ‘to obtain a result by trickery; to deceive; to wangle’. A finagler is recorded in the American Dialect Society’s Dialect Notes, 1922 as: “One who stalls until someone else pays the check” The English Dialect Dictionary lists the words fainaigue and feneague – meaning ‘to cheat’. From this point of view, Finagle’s law is more often applied specifically as a spoof version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and is stated as ‘The perversity of the Universe tends towards a maximum’.[1]

However, in general. It is meant to convey the fickle nature of  random events, the events that do happen and when they do happen, the timing is most inconvenient. informs us that ‘The term “Finagle’s Law” was first used by John W. Campbell, Jr., the influential editor of Astounding Science Fiction. He used it frequently in his editorials for many years in the 1940s to 1960s but it never came into general usage the way Murphy’s Law has. In the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer”, Dr. McCoy refers to an alcoholic drink known as the “Finagle’s Folly,” apparently a reference to “Finagle’s Law.” In Season 2, Episode 1, Captain Kirk tells Spock, “As one of Finagle’s Laws puts it: ‘Any home port the ship makes will be somebody else’s, not mine.'” Eventually the term “Finagle’s law” was popularized by science fiction author Larry Niven in several stories depicting a frontier culture of asteroid miners; this “Belter” culture professed a religion and/or running joke involving the worship of the dread god Finagle and his mad prophet Murphy. “Finagle’s Law” can also be the related belief, “Inanimate objects are out to get us,” also known as Resistentialism. Similar to Finagle’s Law is the verbless phrase of the German novelist Friedrich Theodor Vischer: “die Tücke des Objekts” (the spite of inanimate objects – a comic theory that inanimate objects conspire against humans!! This also is known by a fancy name Resistentialism

Murphy’s Law is concerned more about outcomes than the probability of such outcomes. Murphy’s law lends to the belief that if something can go wrong, some person will definitely be precipitating that action, whether accidentally or by the random ‘human error’ or by malice. To those who see better things in the world, this chance cause can happen for good at a time when it may be most beneficial. After all, if mistakes have fouled up some major experiments, mistakes have also been instrumental in many discoveries as well.

The fact the Finagles’ Law (or even Murphy’s Law) will inevitably come into play should make someone as cautious as one can ever be, so as to avoid such undesirable events. However, the fact that such events do keep on happening shows that either people, by the sheer human nature, tend to overlook some or the other thing or how so ever a human being is smart, nature has a way to outsmart his smartness.

The scale at which the Finagle’s Law is found to be operative can be judged by its n-number of variants in the fields of programming, hardware, IT etc., by visiting Murphy’s Law @ CASRAI.

There are many other versions also coined up, such as –

  • If an experiment works, something has gone wrong. (Finagles 1st Law).
  • No matter what the experiment’s result, there will always be someone eager to:
    • misinterpret it,
    • fake it, or
    • believe it supports his own pet theory. (Finagle’s 2nd Law).
  • In any collection of data, the figure most obviously correct, beyond all need of checking, is the mistake. (Finagle’s 3rd Law).
  • Once a job is fouled up, anything done to improve it only makes it worse. (Finagle’s 4th Law).

The available literature of the real-life examples of applicability of Finagle’s Law is replete with examples in almost all walks of life[2]. We will take up just one, from the drama.

Finagles’s law is responsible for countless storylines in television sitcoms, plays, movies, novels, etc., most especially if they rely heavily on comedy. The odds of something happening as the plot unfolds does not depend on the actual likelihood of it happening.  Instead, the odds of something happening as the plot unfolds depends on the potential for the most disastrous thing happening. Just recall any slapstick comedy, like that of Laurel Hardy for example, and the matter will be abundantly clear.[3] Why would this be?

It’s because without drama and conflict[4], there really isn’t any reason for an audience to stick around to watch how it all ends. As George Barnard Shaw puts it, ‘no conflict, no drama. This is called the Rule Of Drama that states, “If the potential for conflict is visible, then it will never be passed over.”  Were it not for Finagle’s Law, the Rule of Drama would have a much more difficult time of it all. Third Doctor puts it up this more dramatically – “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But it’s not necessarily the most interesting.”

And absence of Fiangle’s Law, would have paled our life !

[1] Actual origin of the name Finagle’s law

[2] Murphy’s Law … Defensive design little light reading


[4] Elements of Drama: Conflict