Tuchman’s Law

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman defined Tuchman’s Law in 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.

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 has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).


  1. Faze says:

    I remember living in New York during the crime wave years of the 1970s and 80s, and my first thought in reading this was that while crime itself wasn’t continuous and ubiquitous, fear of crime was. Then I realized that crime was indeed continuous and ubiquitous in that becoming a victim of a crime was the predictable outcome of certain behaviors. For instance, if you were a middle class white person and walked on certain blocks at any time of day, you would most certainly be robbed. If you set your bag or briefcase down on the sidewalk and took more than a few steps away from it, your bag or briefcase would most certainly be carried off. If you parked your car on the street anywhere on the upper west side, your car window would most certainly get smashed. If you walked down certain pathways in Central Park at any time of day, you would most certainly be approached by drug dealers. Crime was everywhere and it was going on all the time.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I think Tuchman would respond that the crime wave of the 1970s and ’80s was indeed a crime wave, and the danger was on certain blocks.

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