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What the viral Choluteca Bridge story means to a researcher

The Choluteca Bridge story has recently been doing the rounds on Indian social media. If you have not seen it yet, you can find it here. If you have not heard of it, then read on for the most interesting part of the story. If you have heard it or received it as an inspiring WhatsApp message, then you definitely need to read on.

In short, the fact of the matter is that there has been a story floating about a very sturdy bridge that was built in Honduras over a river, which was so well-built that it survived the devastating Hurricane Mitch in 1998 but was left behind standing on solid ground instead of the river it was built over, because the river changed its course. This story, although inaccurate, has been going around since 2010 with different people using it to get across their takes on how business strategies, life strategies, and educational strategies should prepare us for unforeseeable calamities or changes or disruptions. The article is particularly popular on Medium where the particular story has been published twice in 2018 by Brett Munster and Sarah Taylor which can be found here and here, and thrice in 2020 by Mukundarajan V N, Gayatri and Arush Sharma which can be found here, here and here.

Now the problem was that the recent story tweeted with a link to the author's article in Business World became viral. It triggered many retweets and forwards, and a large number of reactions of reverent applause and some reactions of accusation of plagiarism. Below is the tweet @magentablues made to Business World, after which the latter presumably removed the article, because the article does not exist on the BW site anymore. Like all arrows shot into the air, the original tweet and picture cannot really vanish because they have been immortalized by social media users.

When I received this image as a WhatsApp forward, the skeptic in me jumped into action to research the (1) veracity of the bridge story, (2) the originality of the article and (3) the history of this bridge story on the internet.

For the veracity of the Choluteca Bridge story, and the authenticity of the picture (this one) in the sense whether it is portraying a partial truth, or complete truth or is completely false, I found these comments on earlier posts, which are interesting.

Comment No. 1
Comment No. 2

And images here and here that show the broken side of the bridge as described in one of the comments above. So, the facts of the bridge story itself are inaccurately portrayed in all these articles, using a photo that does not show the situation fully, to bolster the points made in the articles. Even if the story was true, I do not see how the inability to predict the future course of a river (rivers do change courses) for the construction of a bridge that is needed now over a site where currently a river flows depicts any shortcoming of the planning itself. And as for disruptive changes, Kodak, Nokia, IBM, etc. are better illustrations. If anything, it can only make a point about the unpredictability of future and how we can take things into stride when things go wrong and move on to make new efforts. So, in my opinion, the lesson to learn is about resilience, flexibility and optimism and not about panic over-planning and certainly not about living in fear and insecurity that what we are doing right now even if it is our best, is not enough.

Key takeaways from the whole incident are:

  1. Do not trust everything you read blindly. Read critically, and draw your own conclusions instead of agreeing with the conclusions of someone else, even if they sound impressive.

  2. Not all impressive sounding writers/speakers are accurate or original in their content.

  3. Pictures can be misleading.

  4. Do not plagiarize content. Educate yourself on plagiarism and copyright violation.

  5. Learn to use search engines for verifying things you read, before you forward them.

And my dear students, don't let people sending you this story make you fearful about future catastrophes (especially in view of COVID 19), about the irrelevance of your present education or efforts, and about how what you must prepare for all sorts of unforeseeable calamities. If anything, let this be only a story about how things will go wrong sometimes and how that is not the end of the world. We can always make new bridges, which is what they did in Honduras, by the way.

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