Saturday, 10 April 2010

Titanic Syndrome

RMS Titanic Memorial Plaque, detail, Eastbourne BandstandOn the 10th of April 1912, the RMS Titanic set out on her first passenger-carrying voyage. The Titanic (and her Olympic-class sister-ships were state-of-the-art. They had a double-hulled design that meant that if one hull ruptured, the ship was still seaworthy. The ship was considered to be practically unsinkable.

Four days later it was at the bottom of the ocean with the bodies of 1517 crew and passengers. The "unsinkable" ship was arguably the most "sinky" ship in human history.
It's normally difficult to assign a "sinkiness" ranking to ships, given that each failed ship only normally manages to sink once, but by sinking before it even made it to the end of its maiden voyage, and killing so many people, the Titanic flipped straight from being supposedly one of the safest seagoing structures ever built, to one of the most dangerous.

Titanic Syndrome
isn't based on any specific mechanism. "Syndromes" are recognisable convergences of trends, that can sometimes associate a particular outcome with a recognisable set of starting parameters. When we notice one of these patterns, we sometimes have a good idea how things are likely to end without having to know the mechanism that gets us there.

In the case of Titanic Syndrome, the association is pretty self-explanatory: when people tell us that nothing can possibly go wrong, that everything's perfectly safe, that a plan is foolproof ... things usually turn out badly.

Why did the Titanic disaster happen, and happen so emphatically? The obvious answer is that the ship sank because it struck an iceberg, but there are additional factors that track back to that initial belief that the ship was almost indestructible. If the ship's crew had been less confident, perhaps they'd have done a better job of keeping watch for ice, or cut their speed. If the shipyard had been less confident about the ship's hull, maybe they'd have built it with better-quality materials, rather than just assuming that if one hull failed there was a spare. And if the company hadn't been so sure that lifeboats weren't really necessary, perhaps that'd have included enough for everyone, and not so many people would have had to drown when the ship went down, while they were waiting to be rescued.

In science, hyperbole is usually an indicator that something's wrong. Theories that are described as "pretty good" usually are, but theories that were told are excellent, or that can't possibly be wrong usually turn out to be already failing, unnoticed. Titanic Syndrome.

Theories that really are that good, don't need to be oversold – it's usually possible to express confidence in an established model more convincingly with quiet understatement. On the other hand, if a core theory is right, but the people involved are still trying to exaggerate the case for it (even though their actions are likely to backfire), then if they're making that mistake, they've probably been making others, too. So "cheerleading" is usually a red flag that some things in the picture are likely to be dodgy, even if the fundamentals of a theory are right.

And sometimes the "cheerleading" stops people noticing that the fundamentals are wrong. And those are the times ... when everybody's invested so strongly in something that they really don't want to believe in the possibility of problems, or start thinking seriously about fallback positions or lifeboats ... that you get another "Titanic-class" event.


Steven Colyer said...

Can you give some examples as you see it of the Titanic Syndrome today?

Would Superstrings theory be one of them?

Historically, I imagine Epicycles pre-Copericus was one. What else?

This is fun. Thanks for the post. I'm relearning Special Relativity at the moment in route to relearning General Relativity, and look forward to reading your book in PDF form online. Would you provide a link, or direct me to it?

I read the Amazon review of your book and the 2 readers comments (the American ones, not UK). The negative reviewer doesn't get it, you wrote for the general public, not the Scientist. Yes, Gen Rev had flaws at the very beginning and Einstein knew it. It's still a wide open field. MOND has been disproved recently and apparently, true? What about John Moffat's MOG then? I haven't read Moffat's book and have no intention of doing so if it's incorrect.

I'm not an authority on either subject yet, and am merely asking for direction, thanks in advance, Eric.

ErkDemon said...

Hi Steven!
There are a few examples in the book, from chapter 20 onwards: Titanic Syndrome shows up on pages 327&339.

And, for now, the PDF version of the book is freeeee! :)

The link is

Parts of the book are aimed at the general public, but others are aimed at hardcore researchers. The one group of people who maybe shouldn't be reading the book are students trying to get through a mainstream relativity course. If they don't like the book, then ... they don't like it. If they do like the book, then ... they might not like their course any more. So either situation would seem to have a downside.

At one point, I think I advised any physics students owning the book to not mention it to their professors and not bring it onto campus unless it was securely wrapped in a false cover. :)

I haven't gotten around to looking at Moffat's book yet, partly because I haven't found any online previews (I probably haven't been in a real bricks-and-mortar science bookshop since it came out about a year ago).
I shall have to investigate further ...

Anonymous said...

your book is not free anymore. is now charging for downoading.


ErkDemon said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Andy!

Scribd only recently deigned to email me that for several weeks they'd been charging for download access. That was pretty bad of them - IMO, you don't invite people to submit content to a free archive and sneakily turn it into a pay-per-view enterprise without telling the content owners first.

I'm quite narked, I'd put up links everywhere telling people to go and download the thing for free, and when they got there they were being charged. Grrr. So I've taken the book off the site, and now I need to hunt down and delete all my links to it.

Scribd originally seemed quite cool, but since they got all snuggly with Facebook they seem to have turned dodgy.