I was talking recently with a civil engineer about the wobbly bridge. This was the Millennium Bridge over the Thames below St Paul’s. If you recall, it wobbled in the wind when first opened, and had to be closed for adjustments. It is now sound and solid, as I can attest as I walk across it frequently.
Why, I asked the intellectual son of Brunel, is it still possible for civil engineering to get it wrong? The answer surprised me. Engineers are often unable to be certain at the design stage, he explained, that something entirely new will operate exactly as projected.
For this reason engineers will generally be wary in describing what something will do. Their lexicon includes phrases such as ‘probability’ and ‘margin of error’, at least before rigorous testing in trials and the real world.
Only once did an absolute claim about an engineering project reach popular awareness. In fairness, the Titanic was actually referred to as ‘virtually’ unsinkable in a marine journal, but the tabloid papers of the day gleefully dropped the adverb in their bid for sensationalist copy. The hubris was followed with (in hindsight) inevitable tragedy. It is not for reasons of superstition that we say ‘don’t tempt fate’, but rather to guard against complacency.
Since the 1912 iceberg incident, industrial designers have had the sense to couch their claims more carefully and precisely. They know that, ultimately, their theories are rigorously tested by experiment, the environment, scientific peers and – most mercilessly of all – the general public.
Away from the world of applied science, however, other academic disciplines and fields of thought can never be subjected to such clear and visible tests. Unlike wobbly bridges, wobbly theories about human nature can rarely be visually expressed or corrected.
Logically, claims in these areas ought to be even more circumspect. Such is human pride, however, that the reverse occurs. Safe in the knowledge that no one can prove them wrong, adherents of this or that field of thought often express themselves with thunderous certainty, and often fervour.
The most obvious examples come from religious thought. But sciences are not immune. One of the taboo subjects in liberal, secular circles is to question the theory of evolution. Even to raise it one is immediately cast as some Medieval relic or far-right religious fundamentalist. But this prejudice suppresses debate.
Think about it, how much of evolutionary theory, if any, is actually based upon evidence? A few Victorian gentlemen with not enough to do found some fossils on a beach in Dorset and constructed a ludicrously detailed theory out of pure speculation. It is actually similar to the Biblical story – that everything started as a shapeless void and life appeared and became more complex. All the Darwinists did was stretch the timeline from seven days to several billion years.
In the 1930s, prominent Darwinists put forward the theory that the ‘missing link’ between fish and mammals was the Coelacanth, an ancient fish which was the right size, which had hand-shaped fins and had been extinct for 30 million years. Then in 1938 a fisherman caught one off the coast of Madagascar. But this pinprick of reality was not enough to stall the ideological train.
Reading Richard Dawkins, the high priest of Darwinism, and one would assume that evolution had all been sorted out in laboratories decades ago. He does protest so much about superstition in other people that one does begin to think of the psychotherapist’s theory of ‘projection’ – earnestly identifying in others one’s own strongest trait.
Of course, I cannot prove that he is wrong. But he cannot prove that he is right. Rhetorical certainty fills the scientific vacuum.
It is the same in management and politics. Belief rather than proof is dominant. In 1999 KPMG carried out a survey indicating that eight out of ten mergers failed. The merged companies were making less money than a sample of similar firms that hadn’t merged. But the same survey showed that the same proportion of managers involved in the projects – 80 per cent – believed that they had been successful.
Where do we pick up our cues? Ideas tend to be transplanted into the common consciousness through virtue of ease of phrasing and the charisma of the proponents, rather than any intrinsic value. This occurs with speculative ideas like evolution, but it can even happen with notions that are complete nonsense. Take the following:
'In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.'
'A butterfly beating its wings in Costa Rica can trigger a chain of events that causes a hurricane in Asia.'
The correct response to these two ideas are:
‘No, they won’t’
'No, it can’t.'
But this doesn’t prevent such phrases being nurtured and loved as aphorisms by perfectly intelligent people.
There is almost an inverse correlation. Engineers, who have to be precise, will couch their claims with caution, while those never subjected to any real test will often be totally convinced and totally convincing.
The more certain someone sounds the less likely their claim is to be true. Of that I am certain. Well, fairly.