Seven Deadly Sins

The Paleolithic Age

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Tuchman's Law

W. J. Rayment / -- Tuchman's Law states, "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold." In other words the chroniclers of a time in history, whether they are ancient monks or modern newspaper reporters always depict events as if their adverse effects are general and pervasive.

The fact is chroniclers and reporters always seek the sensational, because they want to write down things that are out of the ordinary, things that people will want to read. Ms. Tuchman points out in her foreword to "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century", "Disaster 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."

Events, like the results of a battle or the demise of a government, might be exaggerated. For example, the Great Depression was considered a national disaster. When reading of the 1930s, people might assume that the majority of Americans did not have jobs, yet the unemployment for this period seldom reached higher than 25 percent. Many people who lived through the period have recorded that they did not feel the times to be particularly exceptional. Even so, they were grim times for those who had to struggle with the difficulties inherent in a tough economy. The people who were written about were the ones who fell from high estate or could not find work. The average person who lived and thrived through this period is all but forgotten, because his or her experiences were not recorded.

Disasters are of the same nature. Floods, wars, and plagues take their toll, but they seldom have the deep effect that they would seem. Those who do the recording seek out the most dramatic aspects of events from the very "eye of the storm". Those who read such accounts can hardly be blamed for believing that the world is perpetually coming to an end. Ms. Tuchman relates her own tongue-in-cheek experience, "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 seems strange when we apply this law to our own understanding of history. We are used to thinking of crucial events, such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as having immediate and Earth-shattering repercussions. Yet the people who lived in the backwoods of North and South Carolina did not immediately hear of the event, and they were barely affected by the violent struggles of the American Revolution for several years, at least until the British decided to invade the southern colonies. Even more, there were people in other colonies who never even saw a red coat. The American Revolution occured while they tended their farms and raised their families.

Yet events like the American Revolution did have far reaching effects. After all, was it not the British, who on surrendering at Yorktown, played, "The World Turned Upside Down" on their fifes and drums? Was it not the ideals of the American Revolution that helped inspire freedom lovers around the world to look forward to the day when the chains of totalitarianism would be sloughed off in their own countries? The lesson here is that the negative side of things is often played up in History and News; the commonplace and the positive is forgotten by the chroniclers.

Military History


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