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Tuchman’s Law (or “Always look on the bright side?”): 9/10

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I have recently been examining my father’s magnificent collection of books to try to decide which further volumes, if any, to try and rescue.

In doing so I came across – amongst many other treasures – four volumes of history by the American historian Barbara W Tuchman.  I must confess that I had never heard of her.


I looked Barbara Tuchman up and found “Tuchman’s law”, coined by the author herself in 1971, according to Wikipedia, “playfully”:

‘Disaster,’ says Tuchman, ‘is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening — on a lucky day — without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).’

I was impressed by this law, which reminded me of a shaggy dog story with which I often bore my friends about archaeologists excavating an exceptionally ancient pyramid in Egypt, only to find another even older pyramid beneath.  Beneath it lies another still crumblier pyramid, in whose core a chest is found containing a single piece of papyrus covered in hieroglyphs.

When decades later, Hitchhiker’s-Guide-to-the-Galaxy-style, this papyrus is deciphered, it is revealed to state: ‘Things are not what they were.’

In times of troubles, it is reassuring to think that, although things may look grim, life will go on; or, as it is said, ‘the world will keep turning’.  Barbara Tuchman seems to have drawn a similar, or at least related, conclusion.

One might also wonder whether this wise woman anticipated the Internet.  This, by ensuring we all have minute-by-minute or even second-by-second updates of bad news from across the globe rather than as, a century ago, getting our news mostly about local events in daily slugs of newsprint is, I would argue, the epitome of ‘the fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable event by five- to tenfold’.

Although I would also argue that the Internet is potentially more dangerous than that.  Or are my fears simply a reflection of Tuchman’s law?

I hope so.

For: sheds light on the human condition.  Could help us all to calm down a bit.  Reminiscent of Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Against: may be wrong, helping to lull us into a false sense of security and facilitating the end of civilisation as we know it.  So only 9/10.

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