On a recent post, a commenter suggested something that struck me as a perfect example of what I will call Grey’s Law. Grey’s Law comes from an offhanded comment made by the YouTuber CGP Grey in one of his videos, where he said:

There’s almost a law of the universe that solutions which are the first thing you’d think of and look sensible and are easy to implement are often terrible, ineffective solutions, once implemented will drag on civilization forever.

The specific comment that brought Grey’s Law to mind was remarking on the education system, where a commenter said “if the goal was better education we would just do what Massachusetts and New Jersey do and avoid what Oklahoma does.” And this seems to make sense at first! After all, if you want to make any system better, wouldn’t you look at examples of systems that are performing well, find out what they are doing, and then simply use their system everywhere else? Certainly, that’s the first thing you’d think of, and it looks sensible, and it would be easy to implement so…oh wait, right, Grey’s Law. So, what’s wrong with this seemingly sensible solution? 

At the highest level, it falls into one of the major pitfalls of High Modernist thought. I’ll summarize this pitfall by cribbing from Scott Alexander’s review of Seeing Like a State, where Alexander describes one of the tenants of High Modernism as believing “the solution is the solution. It is universal. The rational design for Moscow is the same as the rational design for Paris is the same as the rational design for Chandigarh, India.” Or, as this commenter would contend, the optimal education system for students in Massachusetts or New Jersey is the optimal education system for all students, everywhere. All we need to do is find out what they’re doing in Massachusetts and just do that everywhere. 

But why on earth would we assume this is true? Students aren’t a Standardized Product Unit who all respond to a given education system in the same way – nor are groups of students in different states, towns, or districts. A system that works extremely well in New Jersey might be only moderately successful in Pennsylvania, and completely ineffective for students in the Appalachian region. Even a system that works well in one particular school district might be terribly suited for students in the next district over, or even from one classroom to the next in the very same school. Simply assuming that “we” (whatever “we” is supposed to mean) can just decide what the “right” system is and implement it everywhere handwaves away the enormous variety and complexity of circumstances that exist in different areas and among different students. 

As an aside, I see exactly this sort of thinking a lot in my work as a healthcare analytics consultant. Most doctors I’ve worked with (thankfully, not all) often invoke the term “Best Practices” in a manner that almost makes you expect it to followed by the sign of the cross. They think that “we” just need to Determine Best Practices, often by looking at a particular institution that’s having strong success in a given area. From there, we need only Implement Best Practices at their own institution, and they’ll get the same results. And it never, ever works out that way. I wish it did – it would make my work so much easier! It would mean for any given issue for which a hospital needs help, my team and I would just need to find an effective solution once, and then for every future job, we can just implement the proper tool or system at the new institution and get equally good results.

Alas, reality is not that simple or that simplistic. Every institution has different constraints, different patient populations, different resources – even the personalities of the medical staff can make a huge difference on how effective solutions are from place to place. It takes a good deal of work getting familiar with all the local circumstances to work out an effective solution – and that solution, sadly, won’t be applicable on the next job. 

I also saw this iteration of Grey’s Law play out frequently in my time in the military. Most of the time, any given servicemember is at a given unit for about three years before getting orders to the next unit. During your time at a given unit, you’d almost certainly see the commanding officer replaced, along with the Sergeant Major and other lower-level officers and enlisted leaders. You always hoped that the new bigwigs would be one of the good ones. And one of the most reliable signals we learned for predicting which ones would be good or bad was their attitude on how their experience at their previous unit should inform what they do at the current unit. A universally bad sign was when they said something to the effect of “Back at my last unit, we did things in such and such a way, and everything worked great there. So going forward, we’re going to do it in such and such a way here too.” Commanders with that attitude were, in practice, terrible, ineffective commanders whose methods, once implemented, were a drag on unit performance. 

Luckily, in practice, there was a way around such people, to prevent them from hampering mission effectiveness too much – a way described by James C. Scott in his book Two Cheers for Anarchism

Workers have seized on the inadequacy of the rules to explain how things are actually run and have exploited it to their advantage. Thus, the taxi drivers of Paris have, when they were frustrated with the municipal authorities over fees or new regulations, resorted to what is known as a grave de zele. They would all, by agreement and on cue, suddenly begin to follow all the regulations in the code routier, and, as intended, this would bring traffic in Paris to a grinding halt. Knowing that traffic circulated in Paris only by a practiced and judicious disregard of many regulations, they could, merely by following the rules meticulously, bring it to a standstill. The English language version of this procedure is often known as a ‘work-to-rule’ strike. In an extended work-to-rule strike against the Caterpillar Corporation, workers reverted to following the inefficient procedures specified by engineers, knowing that it would cost the company valuable time and quality, rather than continuing the more expeditious practices they had long ago devised on the job. The actual work process in any office, on any construction site, or on any factory floor cannot be adequately explained by the rules, however elaborate, governing it; the work gets done only because of the effective informal understandings and improvisations outside those rules.

In the same way, when we had a new commander who was drunk on the idea that what worked well at his last unit must also work well here, the result, in practice, was “a practiced and judicious disregard of many regulations” set out by that commander in favor of “the effective informal understandings and improvisations outside those rules.” This was not done flagrantly of course – it was a subtle understanding. But there was a sort of satisfied amusement among us to see a planner utterly convinced their plan was working, and equally unaware that the plan only appeared to be working to them because people knew better than to actually follow the plan.