by David Sisler

You will never convince anyone who has ever run up against it -- and who among us has not -- that Murphy's Law was not meant as a defeatist principle.

The military engineer who coined it intended it to be a call for alertness and adaptation in a world which technology makes increasingly unpredictable. So explains Edward Tenner in his recently released book, Why Things Bite Back. This marvelous book, which discusses unforseen consequences of things animal, vegetable, mineral, and human, is testimony that the best laid plans of mice and men frequently mess up.

Laparoscopic surgeons manipulate fiber-optic light sources and miniaturized instruments into the body through a few small incisions, and patients recover in days rather than weeks. It cost 25 percent less than conventional techniques. Unfortunately, for all its apparent tidiness, laparoscopy may be more hazardous than conventional surgery. Complications may occur up to ten times more often than with traditional procedures, in as many as one case in fifty. About six percent of all hospital patients are infected by microbes they encounter upon entering the hospital. Medical personnel transmit some of these infections. Some doctors and nurses may be asymptomatic carriers, transmitting bacteria by merely breathing or walking around.

Cigarette smokers who switch to low-tar-and-nicotine brands, unconsciously compensate for the reduced volume of nicotine by inhaling more often or more deeply, and even by blocking the tiny ventilation holes in filters that are supposed to dilute their intake with air. An editorial in the American Journal of Public Health speculates "that the existence of low tar and nicotine cigarettes has actually caused more smoking... and thereby raised the morbidity and mortality associated with smoking."

In the original forests of the West, grassland separated large trees and periodic natural fires burned off small trees and brush. The U.S. Forest Service's Smokey the Bear campaign declared that fire was unhealthy for bears and people, and did not understand that it was invigorating for the forest. Accumulating vegetation in the forest allowed fire to climb to the crowns of mature trees, where it could spread more rapidly than ever. The new-style forest frequently explodes into flame.

The Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef off the Alaska Coast in 1988, discharging 35,000 tons of crude oil. Tidying up the oil spill produced even more disastrous effects. The cleanup relied heavily on hot water applied by high-velocity pumps which scalded the beach, killing many organisms that had survived the oil. The pumps disrupted the natural sediments of beaches, both gravel and sand, smothering clams and worms. The oil flushed from the surface killed hard-shelled clams and crustaceans.

Red fire ants first landed in Mobile in the 1930s and by 1978 the U.S. Department of Agriculture had sprayed millions of acres with DDT, spent $200 million, and left more fire ants than ever. They are so resilient they even migrate as part of insecticide shipments. Spraying campaigns may have promoted an even more ominous trend that already dominates Florida: densely spaced supercolonies, as many as five hundred per acre, each with a hundred queens or more, resulting in peak densities of over 500 per square foot. This is all the more mysterious because such behavior was unknown in the ants' original South American habitat.

During the New Deal the U.S. Soil Conservation Service advocated kudzu, a vine native to Asia, as a plant that could restore devastated Southern cotton lands. Growing at a foot a day in the spring, kudzu forms a ground cover which cuts water runoff by 80 percent. The Soil Conservation Service paid farmers $6 to $8 per acre for planting it. Without diseases or North American insect enemies, it thrives, pulling down telephone poles, shorting high-voltage lines on long-distance electric transmission towers, and spreading over bridges. In 1988 a U.S. Forestry Service official estimated timber losses caused by kudzu in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi at up to $175 million.

The computerized word processors, spreadsheets, and databases which proliferate in offices have allegedly become easier to use. Text appears on screen more or less as it will on paper. Colorful icons have replaced most of the mysteries of DOS command lines. But graphic interfaces like the Macintosh System, Microsoft Windows, and SO/2 add other programs behind an organized facade. Users who do not have enough computer power spend more and more time waiting for their systems to finish work or struggling with the computer curse: the infuriating "out of memory" message.

All of the above examples and more, Mr. Tenner reported. He did not describe the most momentous unforseen consequence of all time. This one was revealed almost 2000 years ago. The Apostle Paul, referring to all the forces of evil, wrote: "None of the rulers of this age understood God's secret wisdom, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." Without the crucifixion of Jesus, there would have been no resurrection. Without his resurrection, there would have been no hope. Their miscalculation was always in God's eternal plan. Murphy never had a chance!


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 7/27/96

Copyright 1996 by David Sisler

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