The horse-shit fallacy

In the early 2000s I was on a conference panel in Cambridge. A discussion began about the growing threat of spam with the the prevailing argument being “At this rate, email will be unusable in five years time“.

Sitting here in 2009, spam volumes have never been higher, but my gmail account gets maybe one false positive a month. Email remains quite usable.

This is what I call the horse-shit fallacy.

This is not simply a pejorative term, but is based on (possibly apocryphal) tales of London in the late 19th century. Apparently, the volume of, um, little horse presents on the streets was a growing concern and doom-mongerers voiced that “at the current rate” in 20 years time we’ll be three feet deep in the stuff.

Of course this didn’t happen, and it never would. The reason being simply (and what I argued at that spam panel) that we’d never let it. Life is not linear, and successful marketing is predicated on solving problems. Although I had no idea how spam would be dealt with, I trusted that someone would fix it. In this case, it was Google.

Extrapolating the past to create a projection of the future is endemic in our culture and only serves to immobilise innovation and limit thinking.

Don’t believe the hype. Listen out for that phrase “at this rate…” and give it a dollop of what it deserves.

Photo by Pleple2000