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Strange Days: Myth Busters

 

Streets of Dung

Did the Victorians really think London would turn into a sea of horse manure?

dung

The myth

A 19th-century Member of Parliament predicted that, given the rate of growth of traffic, London would be six feet deep in horse manure by 1910.

The "truth"

The details vary with almost every telling: the doom-merchant is a politician, scientist, city planner, or journalist; the doomed town is London, or various cities in the USA, or a particular famous street such as the Strand; the predicted date of the catastrophe ranges from the turn of the century to 1950; and the depth of the dung goes from knee-level upwards. The underlying message, though, is consistent: forecasting through extrapolation is risky, because it can't take account of technological revolutions. By implication, all predictions of disaster should be treated as mere alarmism; American conservatives, sceptical about the dangers of global warming and pollution, are especially fond of the dung parable. One detail is invariably missing from this story: the name of the failed seer. If the prophecy had ever really been made, someone would surely have uncovered its author by now.

Sources

The "Quote & Unquote" Newsletter, July 2005; www.guardian.co.uk/worldsummit2002/story/0,12264, 784991,00.html and numerous other websites.

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