Tuchman’s Law, or “Always look on the bright side”

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

What is Tuchman’s law and why does it matter?  It is not only elegant, but can actually improve your quality of life.

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

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

Tuchman's Law
My father’s Folio edition of Barbara Tuchman’s books on his shelf

Who is Barbara Tuchman?

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).’

This law  reminded me of a shaggy dog story with which I often bore my friends.  Archaeologists excavating an exceptionally ancient pyramid in Egypt discovered another even older pyramid beneath.  Beneath it lay another still crumblier pyramid, at whose core lay a chest containing a single piece of papyrus covered in hieroglyphs.

The script was ancient – beyond modern science.  Egyptologists took decades to decipher it, Hitchhiker’s-Guide-to-the-Galaxy-style.  The papyrus says: ‘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: ‘the world will keep turning’.  Barbara Tuchman seems to have drawn a similar, or at least related, conclusion.

Tuchman’s law and the Internet

One might also wonder whether this wise woman anticipated the Internet.  This ensures we all have second-by-second updates of bad news from across the globe.  This, I would argue, is the epitome of ‘the fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable event by five- to tenfold’.

In fact, I would 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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