Stigler's Law of Eponymy states that:

  • Mathematical and Scientific laws/discoveries/inventions/&c. are simply not named after their original discoverer.

Stigler's "Law" is a perfect example of itself, being that Stephen Stigler himself attributes the discovery of this very law to a Robert K. Merton, but the idea itself is much older.

(While there are certainly counter-examples of this law) there are hundreds of examples.

This can only be very confusing/misleading for students.


Why is Stigler's Law of Eponymy so standard in Mathematics and the Sciences?

Is there a way to avoid the confusion of Stigler's Law?


Why are such laws/discoveries not given simple descriptive names?; Why are they named after anyone at all?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It the purported law has "hudred of examples" but also "certainly counter-examples" it is not a law at all (in the scientific sense) but only a (useful ???) empirical generalization. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2017 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure of the relevance of your comment. $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2017 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ In mathematics, this is called the "Arnold law". And there is a theorem of Michael Berry saying that "Arnold's Law applies to itself". $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2017 at 3:57
  • $\begingroup$ Can someone please explain the down-votes? Then I can either fix the problems, or delete the question entirely. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2017 at 0:33

2 Answers 2


Why not? Science and mathematics are communal efforts, every discovery typically has multiple precursors ("standing on the shoulders of giants"), and "the discoverer" is often not the one from whom subsequent scholars and/or the public learn about it because they did not explain or publicize it well enough. "Stigler's law" is an example of the latter. Sometimes it is due to historical obscurity of the "original discovery", as with "Pythagorean" theorem or "Heron's" formula, sometimes due to countries or schools promoting "their" discoverer even if he/she was not the first, etc.

The naming, upon which recognizable reference depends, has to deal with pragmatic constraints of cultural change. Although renaming efforts are undertaken to correct some blatant misnomers they typically take a long time to take hold and are not a practical priority (US and UK still use feet and pounds for the same reason). And more generally, historical significance of "original discoverers" is overrated in the popular literature (as can be seen anecdotally from the number of "who was first" questions on our SE), which contributes to the "great leaps by great minds" misconceptions about history. Here is Renn's From the History of Science to the History of Knowledge – and Back:

"The history of knowledge has traditionally been studied from a restricted perspective that favors innovation over implementation, transmission and transformation. In the past, historians of science and technology have often focused on the question of who was the first to discover a fact that later became a key innovation and when this took place. Much less attention has been paid to the question of what role these discoveries or inventions played in the contemporary context of knowledge and how they changed their meaning when transmitted to a different context."

  • $\begingroup$ "Why not?" Because it is confusing and misleading. Might not the Pythagorean theorem (for example), be better named the Right-angled Triangle Theorem? $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2017 at 0:22
  • $\begingroup$ @ElementsinSpace Fixation on original discoverers is also confusing and misleading, and so are many other things of greater practical import. In 1990-s NASA and Russian engineers lost an expensive probe due to confusion over the use of meters vs pounds. But even that did not displace pounds. Compared to that concerns over names of theorems and laws are minor, and for what it is worth, it is more important to have them commonly recognized than accurate. Hence strong inertia. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Dec 17, 2017 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ Sure. But I'm not interested in changing the attribution to the original discoverer, I'm interested in names that aren't deliberatly misleading. (See above comment) $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2017 at 0:43

"X's Theorem" is just a convenient label, not an indication of priority. And many researchers, including myself, will agree that "Pythagoras Theorem" is a more convenient label than the "Right-angled Triangle Theorem". The name that you proposed also does not reflect the matter because there are several theorems about right-angled triangle. Anyway, mathematicians do not find such labels "confusing and misleading", and students have to live with this:-)

Besides this, finding the first person who stated something can be very difficult, many results developed gradually, with contribution from several authors, and further research about history would lead to changing attributions. Changing names of established theorems is not desirable.

I also recommend this related discussion of the common naming practice in mathematics: https://mathoverflow.net/questions/285627/how-are-constants-functions-named-after-their-discoverer/285644#285644


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.