Can a Scientific Law Explain the Oscar-Night Debacle?

Jimmy Kimmel and Warrren Beatty (left) on stage at the Oscars, February 26, 2017. (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
It takes concerted effort to prevent randomness from wreaking havoc on our lives.

I went to sleep before Jordan Horowitz, a producer for La La Land, had to announce, “There’s been a mistake” — that Moonlight had in fact won the Oscar for best picture.

Reading Twitter the next morning, it took a while to figure out what happened. It sounded like Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway — the final presenters of the night — had done something so bizarre that men in white coats should have escorted them off the stage.

But it turns out they weren’t crazy, they were victims of the greatest screw-up in Academy Awards history.

The first thing to say is that Sunday night’s bizarreness fits into a more general trend of universal weirdness. It’s as if at some point we took the wrong exit into a parallel universe, and the bungled Oscars are just the latest example that we’re strangers in a strange land (as John Podhoretz joked on Twitter, “The Man in the High Envelope”).

Maybe there’s some weird version of the Beetlejuice curse, where if you say “that’ll never happen” three times, it happens.

This certainly seems true in sports, where decades-long rules of the universe have been rescinded. The Chicago Cubs exorcised the curse of the billy goat. The New England Patriots came back from a Super Bowl deficit everyone “knew” was insurmountable. And Cleveland, violating all biblical prophecy, is now a sports powerhouse.

SLIDESHOW: Academy Awards Fashion

In politics, the first obvious sign that the world was off its axis was the Florida recount in 2000. But the unraveling has been accelerating. A black guy named Barack Hussein Obama will defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and be elected president? “Never happen.” Donald Trump, president of the United States? “Never happen.” How many times have the polls been wrong now? The pundits? The economists? Google “Brexit” or “financial crisis” and you’ll see.

Maybe the experts aren’t clueless; they just don’t realize that for some reason we live on Earth 2, where these things are normal.

But there is an explanation that doesn’t rely on parallel universes, magic, or someone poisoning the water with crazy pills.

Perhaps the second law of thermodynamics explains it. Well, not the sports victories, but the political and institutional screw-ups.

Steven Pinker recently wrote a wonderful little essay (for on how people need to better appreciate the second law. Specifically, they need to understand that if we don’t actively work to keep chaos at bay, entropy wins. “Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there,” Pinker writes.

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics,” he adds, “is acknowledged in everyday life” whenever we say things like “Ashes to ashes,” “Things fall apart,” or “Rust never sleeps.”

I’ve lost count of the number of movies and television shows that work on the assumption that the government is superhumanly competent.

Complicated things are . . . complicated. If you don’t work hard at keeping them running, the natural order of the universe is for them to break down. Planes don’t “want” to fly, bikes don’t “want” to stay upright, and people, markets, and institutions don’t always “want” to behave the way experts in Washington want or expect them to.

This is a particularly useful lesson for Hollywood to learn — and not just when it comes to awards-show planning. I’ve lost count of the number of movies and television shows that work on the assumption that the government is superhumanly competent. Say the wrong word into a cellphone in Jason Bourne’s universe, and within seconds a van full of hyper-competent assassins will appear out of nowhere. Big corporations, too, not only have people killed, but they’re really good at it.

There is the occasional concession to reality. In Wag the Dog, the government is hapless — but Hollywood producers, the sort who put on the Oscars, can accomplish anything.

The real-life producers dispelled that myth. As they say on the internet, the accountants in charge of the envelopes had only one job — and they butchered it. And the producers of one of the most watched, most important (and self-important) cultural events in American life never thought to have a protocol in place in the event that someone hands a presenter the wrong envelope.

I guess someone said, “That’ll never happen.”

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