Last week, I witnessed an almighty sciencey cock-up. I was watching a live television programme with a usual audience in excess of 2.5 million and the presenter clearly stated that objects faller quicker to the earth because they weigh more. It was all to do with a Chilean base jumper using a motorcycle and in the VT, his bike noticeably fell quicker to the ground than he did.
When one of the presenters asked why that was, the other gave that explanation. As soon as the words left their mouth you could tell there was an element of doubt, anxiously looking to the others to bail them out. They duly did. ‘Urm, I’m not sure that’s correct’, one of them said. To which the original presenter cheerily said ‘any physics teachers out there, please tell us the correct answer!’.
But it was out there. Apparently that bike travelled quicker to the ground because it weighed more (a statement in itself which is incorrect- I doubt a dirt bike weighed more than a man?). Everyone heard it. Half an hour later when they revisited the base jumper story, they gave an answer from one of the listeners who correctly said objects with larger surface areas, like the base jumper, fall more slowly because they experience more air resistance. Acceleration depends upon force and mass. A larger mass has an inverse affect upon its acceleration. Over 400 years ago, Galileo dropped two different weights off the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate this. Then astronaut David Scott recreated this on the moon with a feather and a hammer.
The presenters glossed over what happened half an hour earlier. But I heard it. My boyfriend heard it. I rang my parents and they’d heard it too, even saying when they revisited the story for a third time, they’d embellished it further with the David Scott story. So I wondered who else had heard it. I posted the following comment on Twitter to see,
According to @x on @y, objects fall slower because they weight [sic] less. Galileo might have something to say about that.
The presenter quickly replied,
@JoannaBuckley i didn’t say that!! that was sent in!
I challenged them once again,
@x Pretty sure you offered that as an explanation at 07.40 ish and then asked for ‘physics teachers to write in’ for help. No?
That was it, nothing more was exchanged. But I knew that comment wasn’t sent in by a viewer and, frankly, they’d just told me a bit of a porky.
I have a real problem with this. Not just the white lie but this is a sort of programme with a transitory audience. You probably wouldn’t watch the whole thing so if someone with little scientific understanding watched that segment at 07.40 and turned off sometime before 08.10, they’d have gone away thinking things fall quicker because they weigh more. That sort of mistake is akin to having me on BBC Question Time talking about government politics. I’d cock it up, I know I would so I wouldn’t even try. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for giving stuff a go but science is based on empirical research. Testing, experimenting, observing, learning, exploring, advancing, gaining evidence to confirm a theory. An educated ‘guess’. Not a complete guess.