Sturgeon’s law is the adage that “ninety percent of everything is crap”. This suggests that, in general, the vast majority of the works that are produced in any given field are likely to be of low quality. For example, when it comes to books, Sturgeon’s law suggests that 90% of the books that come out each year are bad, meaning that they likely aren’t worth reading.
Sturgeon’s law is a useful rule of thumb to keep in mind, since it can improve the way you assess and consume information, as well as the way you decide what to work on. As such, in the following article you will learn more about Sturgeon’s law, see examples of it in various domains, and understand how you can apply it as a guiding principle in many areas of life.
Examples of Sturgeon’s law
According to Sturgeon’s law, 90% of the TV shows and movies that come out are of low quality, meaning that they likely aren’t worth watching. Similarly, according to Sturgeon’s law, 90% of the content that’s posted to social media is of low quality, meaning that it likely isn’t worth engaging with, and 90% of the new products that are launched to the market are of low quality, meaning that they likely aren’t worth buying.
Sturgeon’s law can also apply to almost everything in life, as noted in one of the original quotes on the topic:
“All things—cars, books, cheeses, hairstyles, people and pins are, to the expert and discerning eye, crud, except for the acceptable tithe which we each happen to like.”
— From Theodore Sturgeon’s “On Hand: A Book” (published in Venture Science Fiction, September 1957, Vol. 1, No. 5, pp. 49–50)
A similar statement, listing other examples of domains where Sturgeon’s law may apply, appears in a book that discusses this concept while noting that it’s a rough generalization:
“Ninety percent of experiments in molecular biology, 90 percent of poetry, 90 percent of philosophy books, 90 percent of peer-reviewed articles in mathematics—and so forth—is crap. Is that true? Well, maybe it’s an exaggeration, but let’s agree that there is a lot of mediocre work done in every field. (Some curmudgeons say it’s more like 99 percent, but let’s not get into that game.)”
— From “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” (by philosopher Daniel Dennett)
Finally, note that Sturgeon’s law can also be applied more narrowly within specific domains. For example, when it comes to books, Sturgeon’s law can apply to books in general, but it can also apply to books in specific genres, such as science fiction or fantasy.
Caveats about Sturgeon’s law
While Sturgeon’s law can be useful as a rule of thumb, it’s important to note that it’s a general observation, that’s not guaranteed to always be true. Specifically, the following are some caveats about it, which are important to keep in mind when using this principle or when considering its use:
- The definition of “crap” is subjective and sometimes controversial. In many cases, it’s difficult to determine what “crap” means and whether something should be considered “crap” or not. This can be particularly an issue in situations where people fundamentally disagree about how things should be valued. For example, if two people enjoy reading very different kinds of books, they may disagree about which books constitute “crap” and which don’t.
- The 90% figure is just a rough estimate. Essentially, the 90% figure should be seen as a way to say “the vast majority”, rather than as a precise empirical principle that will necessarily be true in every situation. As such, it may be the case that in a certain field, instead of 90% of the works being low quality, only 80% will be low-quality, or almost 95% will be low quality.
- Sturgeon’s law doesn’t apply in all situations. For example, in fields where there’s a high barrier to entry, it may be the case that most of the things that are being published are of high quality. Furthermore, Sturgeon’s law can start to break down if you try to apply it to smaller and smaller segments within fields. For example, it might be the case that 90% of newspaper articles are crap, but if you look at a specific high-quality newspaper, only a small portion of the articles that it publishes are crap.
How to apply Sturgeon’s law
To apply Sturgeon’s law, you should simply remind yourself that “ninety percent of everything is crap” when it’s appropriate to do so, such as when you assess a new work that was recently published in some field. In addition, you can also help someone else apply Sturgeon’s law, by explaining this concept, providing examples that illustrate it, and encouraging the other person to use it in their thinking.
When applying Sturgeon’s law, and when encouraging others to apply it, you should treat this principle as a general observation and useful rule of thumb, rather than as an absolute truth. As such, you should keep in mind the caveats about it, and namely remember that:
- The definition of “crap” is subjective and sometimes controversial, so it’s not always obvious whether something should be viewed as “crap”.
- The 90% figure is a very rough estimate, so you shouldn’t fixate on it or try to quantify things precisely; rather, you should view Sturgeon’s law as a way to say that the “vast majority” of works are likely crap.
- There are many situations where Sturgeon’s law won’t apply, such as in fields with a high barrier to entry.
In addition, several other considerations can be helpful to keep in mind when applying Sturgeon’s law. Specifically:
- While Sturgeon’s law suggests that 90% of works in a field will be crap, that doesn’t mean that these works will be randomly distributed within the field. For example, even if 90% of new books are crap, it might be the case that the 10% of good books can be attributed to a disproportionately small number of authors (e.g. 1% of authors may be publishing 10% of the good books).
- There can be substantial variability among the top 10% and bottom 90% of works. For example, among the 10% of works that are good, it’s likely that only a few will be considered great, and that among the 90% of works that are crap, it’s likely that some are much worse than others.
- Even if a certain work is considered crap, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any value. For example, even if someone considers a certain book to be crap, they may still find that it has a few pieces of useful advice. Furthermore, even if someone thinks that a certain humorous video is crap, they may still enjoy watching it if it helps them relax and unwind after a long day at work.
Finally, when using Sturgeon’s law, it’s also important to avoid blindly adopting it as a defense for something, such as a field or a collection of works. This means, for example, that if someone criticizes a genre of movies that you like, by criticizing specific films from that genre, you shouldn’t necessarily assume that Sturgeon’s law is a valid defense for the genre, and you shouldn’t simply mention this principle in a dismissive manner without any explanation. Rather, you should make sure to explain what this principle is and why it’s relevant, for instance by showing that the films that were criticized have lower ratings than the top films in the genre, which indicates that they aren’t representative of the top films in the genre.
Overall, Sturgeon’s law can be a helpful principle to implement in a variety of situations, but it’s important to view it as a general observation and rule of thumb rather than as an absolute truth. This means that, when you implement it, you should keep in mind the caveats about it, and make sure that your use of it is proper and justified.
The guidelines above can help you implement Sturgeon’s law in general. In addition, the following sub-sections contain several further insights, that can help you implement Sturgeon’s law effectively in more specific situations, and namely when you play the role of a consumer, a critic, or a creator.
Note: a related principle that can be beneficial to implement is the Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule), which is the adage that in many situations, 80% of outcomes are derived from 20% of causes.
Applying Sturgeon’s law as a consumer
Applying Sturgeon’s law as a consumer can help you figure what’s worth spending your resources on, when it comes to things such as deciding which products to buy or which articles to read. Specifically, in this context, Sturgeon’s law can help you avoid wasting valuable resources, such as time, attention, and money, by realizing that the vast majority of things in any given field are low-quality and aren’t worth spending your resources, so you should avoid them and instead focus on the small number of things that are worth them.
One way to help yourself implement Sturgeon’s law in this context is to think of your decision regarding what content to consume or what product to buy as being zero-sum, which means that resources that you spend on something of low quality come directly at the expense of those that you could otherwise spend on something more worthwhile. This means, for example, that every moment you waste filling your mind with low-quality information is a moment you could instead spend on something more useful or enjoyable.
In addition, another important thing to keep in mind is that, as a consumer, your resources are likely highly limited compared to the nearly limitless number of things available for you to spend them on. For example, if you read blogs, the amount of available blog posts is much, much greater than you could actually read. This not only emphasizes the importance of making sure that you spend your limited resources on things that are worth it, but also highlights the fact that you will often have a large selection of works available to you as a consumer, so there’s no reason to spend your time on lower-quality works in the first place.
As one author notes, when proposing a corollary to Sturgeon’s law:
“Life is too short for crud.”
Overall, when applying Sturgeon’s law as a consumer, the key is to understand that most of the works that are available to you are likely to be low quality, which you should take into account when deciding how to spend valuable resources, such as your time and money.
Applying Sturgeon’s law as a critic
Applying Sturgeon’s law as a critic can benefit you in two main ways.
First, Sturgeon’s law can help you formulate better criticisms. Most notably, it can help you remember that the vast majority of the works in any given field are likely to be of low quality, so you shouldn’t necessarily judge a field based on the presence of those works. Rather, you should generally strive to look at the higher-quality works within a field, and assess the field based on those.
Second, Sturgeon’s law can help you determine when and how to criticize things in the first place. Most notably, it can help you remember that most works in any given field are expected to be low-quality, so you should carefully assess a work before criticizing it to determine whether it’s good enough to be worth criticizing, especially if the criticism will require you to dedicate resources, such as time and effort.
As noted by philosopher Daniel Dennett:
“A good moral to draw from [Sturgeon’s law] is that when you want to criticize a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form, . . . don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff, or leave it alone.
This advice is often ignored by ideologues intent on destroying the reputation of analytic philosophy, evolutionary psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, macroeconomics, plastic surgery, improvisational theater, television sitcoms, philosophical theology, massage therapy, you name it. Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, stupid, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts. Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs.
Notice that this is closely related to Rapoport’s Rules: unless you are a comedian whose main purpose is to make people laugh at ludicrous buffoonery, spare us the caricature.”
Overall, when applying Sturgeon’s law as a critic, the key is to understand that most of the available works in any field are likely to be low quality, so you generally shouldn’t focus on those works when assessing the field as a whole, and you should consider whether a given work is even worth criticizing in the first place before you criticize it, especially if this criticism will require resources such as time and effort.
Applying Sturgeon’s law as a creator
Applying Sturgeon’s law as a creator (i.e. someone who creates things such as content or products) can benefit you in several ways.
First, Sturgeon’s law can help you assess your target market or field more accurately. For example, if you’re discouraged as a new creator, because you see that there’s a huge number of works that have already been published in your field, keeping Sturgeon’s law in mind can help you remember that most of these works are likely low quality, so they don’t necessarily constitute meaningful competition, and therefore they shouldn’t discourage you from publishing your own content.
Second, Sturgeon’s law can help you assess your own work more accurately. For example, it can help you realize that what you’re creating is much higher quality than the vast majority of other works in the field, and therefore likely to stand out. Alternatively, it can also help you realize that your work is actually low quality and is likely to be a part of the bottom 90% of works, which can help you plan and set expectations accordingly, for instance by deciding to revise your work further before releasing it.
In addition, Sturgeon’s law can also help you set realistic goals for yourself, which can benefit your learning and progress. For example, Sturgeon’s law can remind you that the top 10% of works in your field aren’t necessarily representative of what the entire field looks like, so you shouldn’t feel bad if your work as a beginner isn’t as great as those works.
Finally, Sturgeon’s law can help you understand various related phenomena. This includes, for example, some people’s tendency to ignore most of the works that they encounter, because they assume that those works are likely to be low quality, unless they see indicators that make them think otherwise.
Overall, when applying Sturgeon’s law as a creator, the key is to understand that most of the works in your target field are likely to be low quality, so you shouldn’t necessarily be discouraged by a large number of competing works or by self-comparisons to the top works in the field, but you should take the time to accurately assess your own work in light of this, so you can plan and set expectations accordingly.
The origin and history of Sturgeon’s law
Sturgeon’s law was proposed by American author Theodore Sturgeon in the 1950s, as part of his defense of the field of science fiction.
Specifically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Sturgeon’s law was first formulated in 1951 or 1952, at a lecture at New York University, and was then popularized in 1953, at the WorldCon science-fiction convention. There, Sturgeon is reported to have said the following:
“When people talk about the mystery novel they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. When they talk about the western, they say there’s The Way West and Shane. But when they talk about science fiction, they call it ‘that Buck Rogers stuff,’ and they say ‘ninety percent of science fiction is crud.’ Well, they’re right. Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it’s the ten percent that isn’t crud that is important. and the ten percent of science fiction that isn’t crud is as good as or better than anything being written anywhere.”
— As reported from memory by science fiction writer James E. Gunn, in an addendum to his review of “The Ultimate Egoist: Volume 1 The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon”, which originally appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction #85 (September, 1995). In the addendum, Gunn notes that “what became known as Sturgeon’s Law was then only a sentence in a talk that Ted gave to the entire convention; total membership was only 750, and there was no need for separate programming. The general thrust of Ted’s remarks was that science fiction was the only genre that was evaluated by its worst examples rather than its best.”
Furthermore, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of the concept behind Sturgeon’s law appeared in writing in 1957, as part of the following quote:
Sturgeon had a revelation.
For twenty years he has been defending s f [science fiction] against its lay critics, especially those who buy on the open market anything which calls itself s f, sieve it with a warp and a woof, and dish up the cruddiest bits to the Saturday Review or the New Yorker with the smarmy comment that This Is Science Fiction. It isn’t as easy as one might think to argue with these people, primarily because they really do take their horrible examples out of the s f field, a field which is, they inform the world, ninety-percent crud.
And on that hangs Sturgeon’s revelation. It came to him that s f is indeed ninety-percent crud, but that also—Eureka!—ninety-percent of everything is crud. All things—cars, books, cheeses, hairstyles, people and pins are, to the expert and discerning eye, crud, except for the acceptable tithe which we each happen to like.
Then why is it that s f, alone among all literary genres, is consistently tarred with its own worst examples by the very people who effortlessly discriminate between, say, Flopalong Cassidy and something like The Oxbow Incident, between the quality of a Spillane and that of a Ngaio Marsh? . . . Sturgeon’s guess is that it has to do with the same thing that caused Boccaccio’s contemporaries to promulgate so much gusty humor about monks and nuns, and which has caused today’s glut of japes and gibes at the psychiatrist. It’s an act of reverence—more; a fear, in the Old Testament sense. Each man kills the thing he loves, it is said; and some tend to poke fun at the things they respect, now (when tight barriers of terror wall off the vacuum left by Mencken and Will Rogers) less than previously, but still more than is tolerable to the devout. And so it is that s f gets attacked by the layman—not because of what it is (they don’t know what it is) but because it carries ‘Science’ on its label. You see, anything with Science in it isn’t allowed to be ninety-percent crud. When they find crud in it (and forget what was said above about a sieve; you can sieve up crud out of our dear field with a coal scoop) they get scared. Living in a cultural matrix dominated by the specter of Science, they will not tolerate a suggestion that we-uns are smearing it; or worse, the frightful hint that maybe Science is, after all, ninety-percent crud like everything else. Of course, they don’t know what s f is, but they think we think it’s Science, and they want no part of us. Hence our really fine ten-percent hides in our vintage cellars except when somebody like Vercors or Orwell or even Shepherd Mead steams off the label and wholesales it in the Main Street markets.
— Quote from Theodore Sturgeon’s “On Hand: A Book”, a book-review column that he wrote in the third-person in this case (published in Venture Science Fiction, September 1957, Vol. 1, No. 5, pp. 49–50)
Sturgeon later repeated this sentiment in another column, where he referred to this concept as Sturgeon’s revelation, and expanded on it:
It is in this vein that I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against the attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of s f [science fiction] is crud. The Revelation:
Ninety percent of everything is crud.
Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.
Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field.
These statements, especially the second corollary, would seem to be self-evident, especially to readers of Venture. It is powerfully clear, however, that they, and it, are not evident to the lay reader and his key symbol, the lay critic.
— Quote from Theodore Sturgeon’s “On Hand: A Book”, a book-review column (published in Venture Science Fiction, September 1958, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 66–67)
As the above quotes show, Sturgeon’s law was originally referred to as Sturgeon’s revelation. Furthermore, Sturgeon initially used the term “Sturgeon’s law” to refer to the adage that “Nothing Is Always Absolutely So”, as shown in the following quote:
There’s Malcolm Jameson on “Space War Tactics,” a discussion on “Fuel for the Future”—the machine to be fueled happens to be human—by the articulate Jack Hatcher; a fine bit of tongue-in-cheek on the sad state of the copyright laws in the days of interstellar intercourse, by Donald F. Reines; and then there’s your reviewer’s personal favorite, as must needs be for one who has reduced the cosmos to Sturgeon’s Law: Nothing Is Always Absolutely So from a lifelong search for something you can really count on—it’s Frederik Pohl’s “How to Count on Your Fingers.”
— Quote from Theodore Sturgeon’s “On Hand: A Book”, a book-review column that he wrote in the third-person in this case (published in Venture Science Fiction, July 1957, Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 78)
However, in modern use, the term “Sturgeon’s law” is used almost exclusively to refer to the adage that “ninety percent of everything is crap”, as noted in the Oxford English Dictionary entry on the topic.
Note: as shown above, although Sturgeon’s law is most commonly quoted today as “90% of everything is crap”, the original adage was “90% of everything is crud“. This formulation is sometimes still used, together with various other formulations for the adage, such as “95% of everything is crap”.
Summary and conclusions
- Sturgeon’s law is the adage that “ninety percent of everything is crap”. This suggests that, in general, the vast majority of the works that are produced in any given field are likely to be of low quality.
- Sturgeon’s law can apply to various things, such as books, films, TV shows, apps, video games, and cars.
- Sturgeon’s law can benefit you in various ways, for example by helping you accurately assess and criticize fields that you’re interested in, and by helping you figure out how to spend your valuable resources, when it comes to things such as your time, attention, effort, and money.
- Important caveats about Sturgeon’s law are that the definition of “crap” is subjective and sometimes controversial, that the 90% figure is just a very rough estimate, and that this observation doesn’t apply in all situations.
- You should treat Sturgeon’s law as a general observation and useful rule of thumb rather than as an absolute truth, and in addition to the general caveats about it, you should also remember that the expected 10% of good works likely won’t be randomly distributed within a field, that there’s a lot of variability even among the top 10% and the bottom 90% of works, and that a work may have some value even if the work is considered to be crap overall.