Friday, January 20, 2006

Credit Where It's Due

In 1974 (when I was seventeen) I wrote and published a Science Fiction story entitled: "Axioms of a Mad Poet". It was a completely amateurish story and I no longer have a copy of it. (If, by chance, anyone out there HAS a copy I would love to get it from you. It was published in a small 'summer project' newspaper in Toronto's East End and back then I used the name "W.B. Clarke" because I thought it sounded more 'authoritative'. Hey, I was seventeen.)

Despite its pedestrian nature, there was ONE line in that story that I really liked: 'Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.' It may be the most meaningful line I ever wrote and was completely original. I'd like to think it would be remembered as 'Clarke's Law' or 'Clarke's Razor' or something equally ominous.

The problem is, the line HAS been remembered and quoted extensively (try a GOOGLE search) but is never attributed to ME! It is sometimes referred to as 'Hanlon's Razor' - (a mis-spelling of Heinlein) because the line: "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity" is in "Logic of Empire" by Robert A. Heinlein. Nothing against him, but my phrasing is better and, frankly, more succinct.

I clearly remember writing this line because originally I had it as 'Never ascribe to malice that which is explained by stupidity' but decided to change 'ascribe' to 'attribute' and modify 'explained' by adding 'adequately' - I vividly remember making those changes and I was proud of the result even back in 1974.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Bill, I'm a reporter with a newspaper in Pennsylvania, and I'd like to discuss the claims you make in this post. There was a man from this area, now dead, who several witnesses say created the Razor and sent it into a publisher's contest in the late 1970s. His name was Robert Hanlon. I see you claim to have written it earlier than that, and I'd like to discuss it with you.
Email me at

Rory Sweeney, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader staff writer

Bill Clarke said...

Just an update - I had a brief exchange of emails with Mr. Sweeney and he eventually published an article available here -

President Leechman said...

Unfortunately the article at the Times Leader is no longer available except by paying for it. Perhaps you could contact Mr Sweeney again and arrange for an archival copy to be made available free of charge?

Also, did you know this page is referenced from both Wikipedia and Wikiquote?

Bill Clarke said...

Sorry about that - I didn't realize it would only be available for free temporarily. But since that company chooses to do business that way I am disclined to do anything to circumvent it.

In the article I am quoted (correctly) as saying that had I known of Robert Hanlon's claim to authorship I likely wouldn't have written this blog entry. That is true. I didn't know about Hanlon when I wrote this article - Hanlon published the quote in a mainstream book in 1980 whereas my claim to authorship relates to an anything-but-mainstream publication (in 1974, but still) so Hanlon got it out to the 'public' first; he can have the credit. I've let the blog entry stand because it would feel dishonest to pull it now.

Anonymous said...

Bill, I find your (entirely credible) claim to authorship to be most fascinating ... because I also derived this law independently, with almost identical wording, sometime in the late 70's or early 80's, as advice to paranoid friends. And my version (Originally "Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence") is just different enough to suggest that this is a universal human truth that has been stumbled on multiple times. It's possible that Robert Hanlon got it indirectly from you or me (my ex-wife was fond of passing it on), but I think it's far more likely that he, like you and me, invented it himself.

Eric M. Van

Bill Clarke said...

Thanks Eric - I think you are absolutely correct.

Though he doesn't cite it in his article, when reporter Rory Sweeney asked me: "Do you honestly believe that two people formulated the exact same sentence within several years of each other, and, if so, does that surprise you?"

My response was: "Frankly I find it far more startling that a man named Robert Hanlon and a man named Robert Heinlein independently came up with such similar sentences. That is sort of freaky, but I believe that's what happened; I see no reason to suspect anything sinister. Perhaps we have a corollary to Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by coincidence."

But I like your explanation better - "it is a universal human truth that has been stumbled on multiple times". Very good - and you and I prove it.

Bill Clarke said...

Apparently Mr. Sweeney's article can be accessed for free through the following link, although one must register to read the entire article.

Anonymous said...

A simple Google search will show that this is a very well known Napoleon Bonaparte quote, with dozens if not hundreds of references:

"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence".

But I am not saying you plagirized it. Using the same principle, I would say that a simpler explanation is that you most likely heard it and unconsciously wrote it later, by changing incompetence by stupidity.

Anonymous said...

It is also interesting that Mr. Eric M. Van claims to have "invented" it as well. It is amazing how we hear or read something, forget about it and later it comes back into our mind as something of our own.

Bill Clarke said...

A google search will reveal many instances of people attributing the quote to Napolean but there are no details - when was it said? to whom? written or uttered? what was the exact phrasing (keeping in mind he would have said it in French)?

I wrote the sentence I quoted in a story in 1974 - I would need to see that exact sentence in published form prior to 1974 before I would totally relinquish my claim to authorship.

Eric M. Van said...

Checking back here for the first time since my comment -- glad to see you agree, Bill.

I have to laugh at "Anonymous"'s skepticism. The notion that Napoleon was smart enough to think this up, but that no one subsequent was, and that therefore they must have heard or read it, then forgotten it -- that's just ludicrous.

In my case, I remember formulating the idea first, in response to a friend who was, of all crazy things, ascribing to malice what I personally knew to be the result of incompetence. And I remember working the idea into an aphorism / general principle. It didn't just pop into my head. And note that I used "ascribe" and "incompetence," while Bill and Hanlon used "attribute" and "stupidity."

I neither desire nor deserve any credit for authorship. I just think my experience, combined with Bill's, casts some welcome light on the authorship question. The idea is eternal and can be found in Goethe long before Heinlein. If you're trying to phrase the idea as a law, there aren't too many options for phrasing it. Hence it has doubtlessly been authored multiple times.

Anonymous said...

It's hardly surprising that this "razor" has become more succinct. It's been kicking around for at least a century and a half.

Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives.
Jane West The Loyalists Volume 2, p 184 1813

He will be likely see faults where none exist, to attribute to malice or design what might have been the result of ignorance, impulse, or thoughtlessness. - D.P Galloup
Lyman Cobb The Evil Tendencies of Coporal Punishment p.119 1847 will be the extreme of injustice in their case, to attribute to malice that which is rather an infirmity …
George B Weber Maine Journal of Education Volume 3 No 5 p. 169 1869

Persons...often atribute to malice what is in reality the result of sheer clumsiness and ingorant blundering.
James Stanley Catholic Progress p 307 1881

One fallacy of temper is to attribute to malice what is in reality the result of inconsideration.
Fredric Perry Dulce Domen p 242 1873 would be a mistake to attribute to malice or intransigence policies or individual acts which may be due to ignorance …
Economica Vol 7 p 160 1927

Enure said...

Why is this quote being attributed to Napoleon?

Jerry Curvey

Me, Myself and I said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Me, Myself and I said...

am going with your version, 
W.B. Clarke ;)
it's the most spot on, including 
the choice and flow of words :) 
(and the 'almost identical' is irrelevant;
it is the charge of each single word that matters... same as with W.B. Clarke 
actually - your seventeen year old self
seriously was on to something...)


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