Monday, November 14, 2011

Why the Titanic is a bad metaphor

Someone used the phrase "could crash and burn like the Titanic" when talking about the potential dangers of a project recently, and rather than be perturbed over the use of "burn" rather than, say, "sink", I got annoyed at another invocation of the huge ship. The Titanic is used so often as a metaphor for man's hubris that the satirical newspaper The Onion fake-back-dated an article to 1912 that says, "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg: Representation of Man's Hubris Sinks in North Atlantic."

On the surface, it makes sense: vain, overzealous shipbuilders and titans of industry boasted that the Titanic couldn't be sunk, even going so far as to not include very many lifeboats, and then it sank anyway. Clearly, mankind should be more humble. We should learn a lesson from the disaster, and not overreach. Specifically, we should reign in science and technology so they never get too out of hand.

Sure, on the surface it makes sense. But lurking below the surface is the much-larger realization that this is an incorrect lesson to draw from the events of 1912. After all, what did we do after the Titanic sunk? Did we learn our lesson and stop making all boats? Did we declare the Titanic's 882-feet length the upper limit in boat construction and vow never to try to approach that size again?

No. Today, the world's largest ship is almost twice the length of the Titanic. Lots of ships are larger than the Titanic - oil tankers, container ships, aircraft carriers. There are even a few that are passenger ships like the Titanic was. They're all doing fine; no icebergs to report. So, we didn't really reign in our hubris at all. Take that, lesson!

But that's not really true - we did learn our lesson. But the lesson was: take what practical information can be learned from our mistakes and apply it to keep pushing forward anyway. I'm sure that boats built after 1912 contained more lifeboats, for example, and maybe routes changed to better avoid icebergs. Perhaps construction was changed in ways to make large boats sturdier.

So this is why this metaphor annoys me. It's a subtle difference in some ways, but the context I've often seen the Titanic metaphor in implies that science should be reigned in, while the real-world lesson learned vindicates science. After all, the whole point of scientific development is to allow mistakes and the constant refinement of knowledge. Science and technological development are less hubristic than other fields of human endeavor, like art, religion or politics. And while the Titanic was a disaster in terms of lives lost, it was also an essential step on the long path of progress that led us to where we are today.

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