Morrill’s Law

You may have heard of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. It might take a while, especially for rarer events, but any disaster that potentially can happen will happen eventually.

You may have heard of Moore’s Law: The highest possible number of transistors that can be put in a CPU, at minimum cost, doubles about every two years (many variants and misquotes of the law can be found on the internet, possibly including this one). While there are some caveats (including rising R&D costs, and Moore himself stating that the Law would stop being true sometime between 2015-25), the Law has held for the past 50 years.

If I ever become famous enough to have an adage like Murphy’s Law or Moore’s Law named after me, I’d like to propose my own “Morrill’s Law”:

Any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood.

It’s basically a more specific version of Murphy’s Law, applied to the communication of ideas – particularly new or controversial ideas.

Misunderstandings are Easy

If something you say while communicating an idea has vague, ambiguous, or multiple meanings, oftentimes the worst possible meaning will be assumed. The worse the implications are about you, the less likely you are to be given the benefit of the doubt that you were misunderstood.

If you’re trying to tell someone about your complex idea, your idea will be reduced to a (somewhat) related but simpler idea. The more complex an idea is, the harder it will be to have that idea stick in someone’s mind or have that idea faithfully reproduced.

If your idea is somewhat close or adjacent to a taboo idea, your idea will be assumed to be the taboo idea in disguise. Clear differences will be ignored, and confirmation bias will go into effect as the person looks for evidence that you secretly support the taboo idea. This will be worse if recent events (personal or political) have primed them to look for secret supporters of the taboo idea.

If your idea is outright controversial, your motives will be assumed to match those of the worst proponents of the idea. Even if there are stark or extreme differences between you and those proponents, you will be grouped together regardless.

If there is an extreme historical example of your idea (or a somewhat related idea) being put into practice, and having disastrous consequences, your idea will be assumed to result in the same exact consequences. Even if your idea is unrelated, distinct, or was designed specifically to correct or avoid those flaws, all of this will be ignored in the face of the extreme historical example.

Avoiding Misunderstandings

Supposing this law is true – that any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood – how do you avoid this? I’m not sure, however based on the above I can come up with some potential guidelines:

Be specific.

Be as specific and unambiguous as possible while communicating ideas, and be equally attentive to communicating what the idea is not.

Recognize personal barriers to understanding.

Recognize that many misunderstandings come down to differences in background, communication style, and life experiences. Work around this or with these, whenever possible.

Reduce complexity.

Reduce your complex ideas to the simplest version before other people do it for you – if you can’t control your idea being simplified, you can at least try to control what simplistic version is remembered.

Break apart your idea.

Alternatively, if your complex idea is composed of several smaller ideas, communicate the smaller/simpler ideas clearly before communicating the larger/complex idea.

Compare and contrast.

Find ways of comparing your idea to the taboo or controversial idea, in ways that very clearly demonstrate how your idea is distinct or opposing.

Demonstrate that you are not evil.

If you risk being grouped together with very unpopular, low-status, or evil people, find ways of communicating that you are not part of these groups – without arguing against these groups so fervently that you accidentally make yourself look like a secret member. “I’m not a spy!” said the spy in disguise.

Talk about historical changes.

If your idea is being compared to a historical idea that had negative consequences, note what has changed – in society, economics, technology, etc. – that would make these consequences unlikely or impossible.

Remember what you can and can’t control.

Lastly, recognize that you can only control your own actions – you cannot control people’s reactions. You can do everything possible to try and communicate your idea clearly, correct for possible misunderstandings, and still have people not understand your idea. Alternatively, they understand you, and still hate your idea for reasons you obviously don’t agree with. There are many more factors like this you cannot control – influence, but not control.

TL;DR: Any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood.