Comedian Robin Ince explores the laws that govern our lives that really aren’t, but still somehow are true. The hidden truths which nonetheless preside over our lives. We all know how we live in a deterministic universe governed by carefully described quantifiable scientific laws and principles but, then in a practical sense, we really don’t.

These laws are the hidden truths which really preside over our lives – quirky, useful or entertaining rules, which, if they are well known, crop up without explanation or, if confined to specialist circles, deserve to be more widely understood and appreciated.

Presenter: Robin Ince   Producer: Alex Mansfield-Sella

Episode 1 of 5 Murphy’s Law

From Murphy’s Law (anything that might go wrong does so), to Betteridge’s Law ( any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”) via Parkinson’s fundamental law of bureaucracy ( work expands to fill the time available) and the Peter Principle (employees rise to their own level of incompetence).

Robin Ince examines five laws that aren’t laws in the legal sense, or in the physical sense but asks how did these so called “laws” evolve, why do we like them and what scientific evidence is there that they really work?

Episode 2 of 5 Parkinson’s Law

Cyril Northcote Parkinson may have trained as a naval historian, but it was his succinct humorous essay for the Economist magazine in 1955 that was to overshadow much of his career. In it, he laid out his fundamental law of bureaucracy – “work expands to fill the time available” – and he went on to explain how organisations become bloated regardless of the work in hand.

It was instantly recognised by subordinates and made for uncomfortable reading for those near the top of any institutional hierarchy. Robin Ince explores how the law and its corollaries have taken on a life of their own and are now being reinterpreted as remote working becomes the new normal for many.

Episode 3 of 5 Betteridge’s Law of Headlines

If a newspaper headline ends in a question mark, is the answer always no? And if so, are journalists who use them being lazy and cynical?

Ian Betteridge described what is now known as Betteridge’s Law of Headlines in a small blog post in 2009. Is it still relevant in our current age of clickbait and media bubbles?

Robin Ince puts these questions to Caroline Frost, an ethicist, entertainment journalist and broadcaster, often seen reviewing the papers on a Sunday night on the BBC News Channel, and to Gemma Milne, a tech journalist and author of a book about the dangers of hype in science journalism called “Smoke and Mirrors”.

Episode 4 of 5 The Peter Principle

In 1969, Canadian educationist Lawrence J. Peter developed an unorthodox concept that became known as The Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. His satirical insights into business struck a chord with many subordinates across a range of organisations.

Peter went on to develop his theory further, claiming that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties”.

So how is any work achieved? Are companies giant machines for sorting people into precisely the jobs they can’t do? And to what extent are brilliant people really promoted until they become awful managers?

Robin Ince decodes the humorous jargon that ensured Peter’s book remained on best seller list for months after its publication. He hears from Yale Professor of Finance Kelly Shue, who offers the first empirical evidence for the Peter Principle in action, and Prof Robert Sutton of Stanford University on how to evade this law of hierarchy and dodge ever reaching your level of incompetence.

Episode 5 of 5 Stigler’s Law

Stephen M. Stigler’s Law of Eponymy states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.

Professor Stigler, a statistician at Chicago University, defined his own law in a tributary paper to his friend, the sociologist Robert Merton, in 1980.

Merton had been famous in sociology for writing about the “self-fulfilling prophecy”, amongst other things, and also for a long treatise about how often the same law or principle in science has been discovered multiple times by different people.

Merton also wrote about how Isaac Newton’s famous phrase “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” was not itself even his own metaphor.

Stigler’s amusing and humble paper was thus, despite including some new statistical insights into the phenomenon (and even a reasoned suggestion as to its cause), more of a jovial tribute to his friend’s earlier insights than an aggressive assertion of nominative priority.

It self-fulfilled its own eponymous point.

But the joke, and the law, stuck. And it continues to ask important questions about the nature of knowledge, the sociology – and the popular history – of science itself.