“Scientific discoveries are never given the names of their actual discoverers.”

When I teach cryptography, my students learn that the Caesar Cipher wasn’t actually invented by Julius Caesar, that the Playfair Cipher wasn’t created by Lyon Playfair, that the Vigenère Cipher is wrongly attributed to Blaise de Vigenère, and so forth.

Those are all examples of Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which is stated in the title of this piece.

Now you’re going to jump to the conclusion that this is ironic because Stigler probably didn’t really come up with the law named for him…and of course you will be right. But don’t pat yourself on the back for such a great guess: Stephen Stigler was way ahead of you and did it on purpose.

Does it matter? Or is the name of a discovery just a handle so we can refer to it—and could just as well have been a different handle? And is your opinion different for different disciplines? Maybe the misattribution is more significant in math than in physics. Or more significant in biology than in chemistry. Or vice versa.

There’s no good way to answer that question. A law/discovery/procedure is rarely the product of a single mind, after all. As a college freshman, I was struck by the unwieldiness of the name of the Cauchy–Bunyakovsky–Schwarz inequality, only to learn the following year that Bunyakovsky is usually dropped from the trio. (Of course I no longer remember what the theorem says—merely its magnificently multi-cultural name.)

So Stigler’s Law joins Murphy’s Law and its cousins in being a humorous remark, not actually a law—but a remark that roughly captures a real truth.

Categories: Life, Linguistics, Teaching & Learning