Hanlon’s Razor and Human Behavior

WC wants to introduce his readers – especially those inclined to see a conspiracy behind every tree – to an analytical principle, Hanlon’s Razor.

The source of the leak on the International Space Station. Source: NASA TV

The source of the leak on the International Space Station. Source: NASA TV

There’s a vigorous debate about the recent pressure leak on the International Space Station. It wasn’t a catastrophic leak. But unresolved it would have depressurized the entire space station over the course of two weeks or so. It was traced to a hole in the Soyuz space capsule attached to the ISS.

At first the 2 mm hole was thought to have been caused by orbiting debris or a micrometeorite. But it turns out it was a manufacturing defect. “We are able to narrow down the cause to a technological mistake of a technician. We can see the mark where the drill bit slid along the surface of the hull,” Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

This particular Soyuz spacecraft was manufactured by Energia, a Russian company. A former employee of the company who is now a professor at Moscow State University told another Russian publication that these kinds of incidents have occurred before at Energia. Viktor Minenko, the former Energia employee, said:

I have conducted investigations of all kinds of spacecraft, and after landing, we discovered a hole drilled completely through the hull of a re-entry module. But the technician didn’t report the defect to anyone but sealed up the hole with epoxy. We found the person, and after a commotion he was terminated.[^1]

Across the internet, there was a flurry of claims that this had to be sabotage. Arguing from the multiple “skid marks” or “chatter” where the drill bit had chipped into the surface, they inferred intentional conduct, It’s a perfect time to invoke Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Some Russian technician screwed up drilling the hole. Rather than face up to it and face discipline, he patched it with glue and pretended it hadn’t happened. Stupidity, not malice.

Author Arthur Bloch assembled two amusing books of variations on Murphy’s Law and other aphorisms. WC is a proud owner of both. The second one, Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! (1980), contains Hanlon’s Razor, noting Bloch attributed it to Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as a submission for the book. Variations came from Robert Heinlein and various British sources.1

Sure, it’s an adage and not a natural law. Like Occam’s Razor, it’s a problem-solving principle, a guide post based on human experience. And one that is especially useful in these conspiracy theory-obsessed times.


  1. Compare the British “Cock-up, not conspiracy”.