By Richard Franklin
In 1912, a famous and long-running story began a 40-year run as accepted fact, only to be debunked totally as a hoax that spawned and ruined careers. This was the celebrated discovery of the “Piltdown Man,” thought to be the missing link connecting the evolution of the early apes to the human being. The discovery was counted so much as fact that it was called upon in the well-known Scopes monkey trial in 1925 by Clarence Darrow.
Piltdown man was pure fabrication: The combination of human (homo sapiens) cranial fragments with orangutan (ponginae abelii) jaw fragments. This intermingling of parts served as a sufficient mist of confusion that allowed paleontologists of the day to see exactly what they knew would be there all along. People see what they need to see. Scientists were under pressure to come up with a British contribution to emergent evolutionary theory for nationalistic and career reasons. Others in the collusion may have included Arthur Conan Doyle, in a project that included filing down teeth on the specimen to make them appear human, and dying the bone fragments to age them.
Subsequent dating methods found out the fraud in 1949, but it took four more years for the scientific community at large to turn totally from the fairy tale. As G.K. Chesterton noted, people will take anything said by no one in particular, but seldom accept anything on authority. Charles Dawson, the discoverer of the fossil, was later found to have fabricated a score of other important discoveries. Apparently Dawson was an entrepreneur specializing in human gullibility, knowing the real principle at work, which was not evolutionary inevitability, but that need of self-proclaimed intellectuals to see things confirmed that they had predicted.
Combine this principle of only seeing the truth needed at the time with the tendency for people to cling to each other over flattering narratives, and we have the growth of parochial creeds masquerading as masterful successes or inevitable truths. Piltdown resulted in millions of wasted dollars and years of research, but there are worse instances of blindness. Recall that it took awhile for Soviet sympathizers in the West to accept evidence of slaughters that surpassed Nazi atrocities in the subjugation of the Ukraine. ‡
Facades in Chattanooga
Recently, the Chattanooga municipal broadband has been celebrated as the centerpiece, if not the outright reason for, a renaissance in job creation and innovation in Chattanooga. CBS news and the Washington Post are in the forefront, touting the success that beat even Google to the punch, and is of course bringing the inevitable flourish of prosperity. CNBC quotes “Outside” magazine naming Chattanooga “the best city ever.”
Usually with little data, or a mix of pre-network and post-network figures, the reports happily mingle craniums and jawbones, all airbrushed with a patina of authority that does not bear scrutiny. Ex hoc propter hoc is the term for arguments that don’t follow, and the greatness of Chattanooga that can be discerned is not due to the Gig network.
Scrutiny has arrived in the form of a report by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Far from evidence of an economic and innovative upswing coming from the “Gig” network financed at over $300 million, the Milken Institute rates Chattanooga in the bottom 10 percent of cities for job growth in technology over the past five years. The Gig has been running now for over four. Chattanooga is actually dropping rather precipitously in other categories, such as best-performing cities down from No. 80 among 200 in 2012 to No. 174 this year.
This race for the bottom was only bettered by Ithaca, N.Y. — a location marked by cronyism and a notoriously anti-business tax structure, but I would wager rivaling Chattanooga in “outside” bestness.
Combine this negative report with bad news concerning electric revenues, and the highly leveraged city-owned EPB can be seen as squeezed between TVA rate hikes and declining demand, further burdened by the necessity of making the fiber operation profitable. The free market business world builds to meet demand, not on speculation.
Favorable story line, with subsidies in the footnotes
A necessary hoax, like Piltdown, is under way. It is necessary because several futures depend on it. Certainly not everyone touting the Piltdown man was in on the misdirection. Insofar as the “discovery” of Piltdown fulfilled the hopes of academics, the story of Chattanooga’s accomplishment has drawn similar members of the chorus, like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This organization, obviously carefully named to avoid recognition of its collectivization advocacy, has bit at every rubber worm dangled from the Chattanooga Electric Power Board, and is relieved to be vindicated by the likes of CBS.
Like certain banks, EPB is “too big to fail,” not just by virtue of financial liability for the city, but by virtue of the cloud of consultants and advocates dependent on its success. The story necessary to prevent failure is that the Gig network has caused a renaissance that justified the monopolistic and expensive grab of the internet industry by that municipality. In such situations the interested parties will find someone ready to provide the necessary story.
Don’t be surprised, however, when the EPB attempts again to extend its Gigabit fiber network beyond the municipal boundaries to preserve the myth of civic success. This would be an ironic intrusion into areas of actual tech business growth. This wouldn’t be necessary if the fabulous success story were true.
Richard Franklin’s website is Bureaucalypse.org. Read an earlier piece here, “Free market Sherman tanks will outflank clumsy Tigers of Gig City.”
‡ “Behind Ukraine’s protest are memories of Moscow’s famine,” the Globe and Mail, Dec. 11, 2013