On Godwin's Law

Lloyd Wood (L.Wood@surrey.ac.uk)
Mon, 16 Mar 1998 21:41:50 +0000 (GMT)

On Mon, 16 Mar 1998, Joseph M. Reagle Jr. wrote:

> On Fri, 13 Mar 1998, Gregory Alan Bolcer wrote:
> >BTW, this is fuel for my theory that any thread longer than
> >3 replies will converge on the topic of sex or death, 97% of the time.
> Isn't this just a variant of Godwin's Law?
> Godwin's Law
> /prov./ [Usenet] "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the
> probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches
> one." There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs,
> that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has
> automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law
> thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on
> thread length in those groups.

You did a search on altavista for Godwin's law, right? Did you think
to verify the accuracy of the source you quote? No, I thought not -
but we'll get to that in a moment.

First, I see that baisley added:
| Thus Godwin's Law is the end of its own losing, one-post argument.

A nice, quick, but not completely thought out, riposte.
Logic would suggest that since Joe first mentions Hitler in the
thread when he invokes Godwin's law:

1. Joseph loses the argument, by Godwin's law as stated above (and
Greg's assertation of convergence is not just a variant of Godwin's

2. Since losing the argument means Joseph must be wrong, Godwin's law
must be wrong.

3. By continuing the thread as we are doing, we are providing a
practical demonstration that Godwin's law is, indeed, wrong.

So far, so good - at first glance. But #1 assumes Godwin's law is
right, and #2 and #3 demonstrate that it is wrong. How do we resolve
this evident paradox?

The first obvious fallacy here lies in step 2; in fact, on usenet and
in any forum of self-selecting public discussion, arguments are
*always* lost by the people who are right and who know what they are
talking about (generally because no-one else understands the
ramifications of the points they make, and because the people who
actually know what they are talking about and who are willing to waste
their time contributing to usenet are in an ever-decreasing minority.
No wonder those people get frustrated and are said to invoke Godwin's
law before eventually leaving in disgust at the lowest common
denominator that mass consensus brings, you say.)

That much would be consistent with baisley's conclusion. Godwin knew
what he was talking about, therefore he is right, but would appear to
lose his own public argument on usenet in one post simply _because_ he
is in actuality right.

But continuing the thread - as we are doing now - disproves Godwin's
law as stated (even though he's publically wrong yet actually right).
How can we account for this?

Quite simply, anyone on usenet who remembers Godwin's law and quotes
it as received wisdom must be wrong, as all received usenet wisdom is
obviously wrong, since the people with the time and inclination to
post to usenet and spread such information are clueless morons who
can't get anything right and who always shout down the people who know
what they are talking about. Those few knowledgeable people then
leave, embittered, to write books to put their points of view across
(other than those usenet-like computer books with shelflives of less
than three months, of course).

This is a corollary of arguments on usenet being lost by the people
who are right; people who are always wrong will thrive on usenet.

We can find support for this view in Godwin's own description of his
law, 'Meme, Counter-meme':


'I developed Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion
grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or
Hitler approaches one.

I seeded Godwin's Law in any newsgroup or topic where I saw a
gratuitous Nazi reference. Soon, to my surprise, other people were
citing it - the counter-meme was reproducing on its own! And it
mutated like a meme, generating corollaries like the following:

Gordon's Restatement of Newman's Corollary to Godwin's Law:
Libertarianism (pro, con, and internal faction fights) is the
primordial net.news discussion topic. Any time the debate shifts
somewhere else, it must eventually return to this fuel source.

Morgan's Corollary to Godwin's Law: As soon as such a comparison
occurs, someone will start a Nazi-discussion thread on

Sircar's Corollary: If the Usenet discussion touches on homosexuality
or Heinlein, Nazis or Hitler are mentioned within three days.

Van der Leun's Corollary: As global connectivity improves, the
probability of actual Nazis being on the Net approaches one.

Miller's Paradox: As a network evolves, the number of Nazi comparisons
not forestalled by citation to Godwin's Law converges to zero.'

That article clearly outlines the corruption of the original statement
of the law, but at no point does it mention the end of a thread.

It would appear that the popular misstatement of Godwin's Law that
Joseph cites has actually evolved to serve the ends of the clueless
morons who propagate it, as adding the perceived relevance to usenet
helps to ensure its continued propagation in the environment of
usenet. Memes can, and will, adapt to their hosts.

Thus, this misquoted Godwin's law, in the form given by Joseph above,
is a fallacy spread by clueless morons on usenet and now on the web
(and some of us even knew that already), because that's how it best
survives. The earlier problem I raised of the thread being continued
appearing to thwart Godwin's law, as stated by usenet, is resolved by
usenet and accepted wisdom being, as usual, completely wrong. There is
no paradox.

Dave Crook adds:
< I think there is also a corrolary stating that as a usenet
< discussion grows longer, the probability of someone mentioning
< Godwin's Law also approaches one.

In general, as a thread grows, the probability of someone mentioning
_anything_ approaches one. This is Pretty Damn Obvious - and it would
even include sex and death, too. Where I come from, we call this

As a thread grows, the probability of Hitler being mentioned
approaches one. That is all. Godwin is shown to be right in his
statement, since, after all, it's just simple probability. Received
usenet wisdom and Godwin's law disagree on the details of Godwin's
law, because, as previously stated, usenet is filled with clueless
morons who will misquote you (and who incidentally can't do stats,

Now, as a corollary to the treatment we've seen of Godwin's (original)
law, I am able to state that anyone who mentions Hitler in a thread is
very probably right and deserves to win their argument, despite
popular opinion as asserted by clueless morons who will appear to win
in public and who will then go on to misquote them for the rest of
eternity. Godwin stating his own law in public is obviously a very
clear example of this. (Thanks for the germ of that one, baisley.)

Mentioning Hitler and being completely dead-on absolutely right has
certainly been the case for me in the many times I've been forced
through desperation to bring up Hitler in the past while arguing with
the accepted wisdom of clueless morons on usenet and elsewhere; do
note that I'm mentioning Hitler right now, and I hope that you all
appreciate the ramifications of the point that I'm making here.

Feel free to disagree with and misquote me, since it's pretty obvious
from the corollary I've just inferred that you'll be completely wrong,
and since you're going to do that anyway I may as well give you
permission to go ahead and make fools of yourselves. You're just
victims of an adaptive meme; you're paralysed by peer pressure, you're
mere victims of what you think you know; you're mesmerised by a
mutated meme.

See if I care. I'm off to write a book and I'll have the last laugh.
History will remember my words; it won't remember usenet's.

Overall, this seems pretty straightforward to me. Any questions?


Release new memes at your peril, for the mutations will come back to
haunt you.