March 23, 2006

Get worried at an alarming rate

I recall reading a statistic from my student days to the effect that if physics journals continued to grow at the same rate, then by the end of the twentieth century, library bookshelves would have to expand at the speed of light to accommodate them. This absurdity is an illustration of what one might call the exponential-growth fallacy. [...]

The key point about exponential growth is that it never lasts. The conditions for runaway expansion are always peculiar and temporary (with the possible exception of the expanding Universe).
Paul Davies writes this in a review in Nature of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil.

After reading the review I went to
Google Scholar to find out whether academics are using the expression "alarming rate" more frequently these days. And indeed. The graph below shows that the number of documents that mention "alarming rate" as a proportion of documents that mention the word "rate" is increasing at an alarming rate a seemingly exponential rate. I use this proportion instead of absolute numbers to control for temporal trends in the number of documents that Google Scholar indexes.

The trend may indicate that we live in a world that is getting worse at an alarming rate. Or it may indicate that the alarmism of academics is increasing at an alarming rate a seemingly exponential rate. In either case I hope it is something "peculiar and temporary".

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