The other day I was watching Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC when on came their geek spot segment. The story this time? “The dictionary definition of the word ‘siphon’ has been wrong for nearly a century.”
“What the –?” I said to myself.
I was then informed that according to some college lecturer in Australia the Oxford English Dictionary was wrong in attributing the action of a siphon to atmospheric pressure. “It’s just gravity,” they said.
Wondering whether I could believe my ears that all the college-educated journalists on MSNBC could be so ignorant of middle-school physics, I found that the story was being sourced to the blog of the Guardian, the British daily. Indeed, there there is a piece by James Kingsland saying just that. He goes on to say that gravity pushes the liquid. I recall Newton telling us that gravity is an attractive force – when did it start pushing?
Later on Kingsland decides that the water is pulled up the shorter pipe by “the continuous chain of cohesive bonds between the liquid molecules.” So water is a sticky string! The lecturer he cites on this is Stephen Hughes at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.
The Daily Telegraph had the same story, which doesn’t surprise me. The Telegraph has a long history of incompetent science reporters, including one who abused me personally in print after I pointed out one of his blunders. But the Guardian is usually not quite as clueless. Admittedly this is the blog rather the print edition but still, do they not care who they let on to their turf?
The problem of ignorance of science and technology among highly-paid journalists in the mainstream media was ever thus. Many in the media think it doesn’t matter – after all, the only people who will notice what’s wrong are geeks. But hold on folks – science and technology are all around us. They happen to be very important, and they impact everyone’s lives. In a democracy we cannot afford public ignorance of a major part of public policy.
It isn’t just that the journalists get details wrong – often there are elephant-in-the-room questions that occur to any knowledgeable person and that have to be answered in order for the story to make any sense at all. And yet the editors don’t seem to mind that their pages and airwaves are being filled with drivel, whether it’s energy policy, the environment, industrial development or the cure for cancer.
Looking back at the story, it didn’t occur to Kingsland to ask, “Could a siphon work in a vacuum chamber? Could you have a water siphon taller than 32 feet?” A little bit of knowledge would have told him that at the top of the short tube, the pressure in the liquid is atmospheric pressure minus the weight of the liquid. At the top of the long tube the pressure is likewise atmospheric pressure minus the weight of the liquid. Since there is more liquid on the long side, the pressure at the top on the long side is less than on the short side. Consequently the liquid flows from the higher pressure to the lower and down the long tube.
So Kingsland clearly got his job as a subscriber to the old journalist maxim that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story. How the lecturer got his job is another question.