Why Doomsayers Often Get It Horribly Wrong

Vishal Kataria

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(Photo by cristian castillo on Unsplash)

Let’s travel back in time. All the way back to the late 1880s.

You’re sitting at home, reading the newspaper on a Sunday morning. Each page quotes experts who highlight the same crisis: each of over 150,000 horses in every city is relieving itself of, on average, twenty pounds of manure every day. That’s at least 45,000 tons of manure a month!

George Waring, Jr., New York city’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, describes Manhattan as stinking “with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.” Another observer writes that the streets are “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.” Stable owners have to pay to get the manure removed, which leads to accumulation in vacant lots, providing breeding grounds for flies that transmit disease.

A public-health crisis seems imminent. The manure situation dominates the international urban-planning conference. But the delegates can’t agree upon any solutions and break up the meeting, scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days.

“It’ll get worse,” experts declare. One commentator predicts that horse manure will reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows by 1930. In 1894, the London-based Times allegedly forecasts that every street in the city will be buried under nine feet of manure (a claim it denies in 2018).

It appears like a case of Cassandra Complex, a social phenomenon where people’s accurate predictions of crises get ignored. All you hear are cries of “We’re doomed! We’re doomed!” much like a character from a famous British sitcom, because no one seems to listen to the experts.

Then, almost overnight, the crisis passes. It takes more than two decades to figure out the real reason: Patent #37435.

On January 29, 1886, Karl Benz applied for a patent for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine.” The patent — number 37435 — was probably the birth certificate of the automobile.

But the gas-engine-powered-vehicle wasn’t an overnight invention either. In fact, it took over 100 years to come to life.

In 1769, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the first steam-powered automobile capable of human transportation. In 1823, English engineer Samuel Brown invented the internal combustion engine. In 1870 Siegfried Marcus built his first combustion engine powered pushcart, followed by four progressively more sophisticated combustion-engine cars over a 10-to-15-year span that influenced later cars.

In 1886, the automobile was born. Slowly, automobile production picked up steam. In 1908, the Ford Model T became the first mass-produced automobile. From 1913 to 1927, Ford produced over 15,000,000 Model Ts.

By the 1920s, all major automobiles were mass-produced to meet the rampant demand. Just like that, we prevented the Great Horse Manure Crises.

The world is going to end (not).

Each time you open the newspaper, turn on the TV or browse Twitter, doomsayers are all over, busy painting a bleak picture of the world. They claim the world (or humankind) is about to end unless we mend our ways by switching to an almost austere lifestyle.

Their predictions, critiques, and arguments present juicy bytes for the media to sink its teeth into. As a result, doomsayers always hog the spotlight.

I’m all for conversations that create awareness. But “awareness” that doesn’t invoke action is harmful for multiple reasons.

First, it spirals into blame games. The “experts” berate others for “not doing enough.” In turn, the other side pushes back. To the extent that it refuses to accept the gravity of a situation. All we see and hear are shouts and screams.

Second, people sabotage these discussions to forward their own vested interests, diluting the original cause and making it toxic.

Finally, doomsayers believe their “world-is-going-to-end” rhetoric with such conviction that they refuse to notice the work happening on the ground. They refuse to acknowledge the power of the exponential growth curve.

What is the Exponential Growth Curve?

This occurs where the outcomes double in power on a regular basis. Like a proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in one continent and create a hurricane in another, such a phenomenon leads to disruption.

During the embryonic stages, outcomes are so tiny that they’re invisible. 0.01 doubles to 0.02 which becomes 0.04, 0.08, and so on. To the naked eye, this still appears like zero, like nothing is happening.

But when the exponential curve breaches the whole-number barrier (1, 2, 4, 8, and so on), the outcomes are just twenty steps away from a million-fold improvement, and 30 steps away from a billion-fold improvement. This is when a disruption occurs.

The evolution of the automobile from invention to mass-production is an example of the exponential growth curve.

Another example is your smartphone. In the 1950s and ’60s, processors were expensive and slow. But over time, their speed rapidly advanced and prices drastically fell. Today, the device you’re probably reading this on is more than 32,600 times faster than the computers that sent the first rocket to the moon. Likewise, cameras that would cost tens of thousands of dollars to build in the 1960s cost less than $20 in your smartphone today.

The same holds true for other concerns like gender bias at work. These are grave issues. But instead of highlighting only the negatives, let’s look beneath the surface to discover and celebrate good work in these and other fields. And we'll find that a lot of good work is indeed being done, work that will

It’s important to pose questions about pressing issues. But it’s more important to educate ourselves by collecting more information, building balanced perspectives, and searching for our own answers before doing so. This will help us ask better (and more meaningful) questions instead of behaving like the herd.

Let us celebrate action.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood… and who at the worst fails while daring greatly.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Let’s listen to people, but do our own homework too. Let’s glorify the doers instead of the demanders. Let’s contribute to solutions instead of adding to problems.

The world is much better than doomsayers make it appear. The human spirit is far more resilient than we know. We can be a part of positive change. if we pay attention to the right things.

After all, change begins with us.

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