Hogwash probably caused by cosmic rays

Once again, I’ve come away from listening to an episode of RadioLab convinced that they sometimes play dumb for effect. In this episode, “Bit Flip”, they went on for some minutes about how none of them had any idea what the significance of the number 4,096 might be, even as someone started going through the powers of two for them. The rest of the episode was devoted to detailing how not one of them had ever heard of the rare but real effect cosmic ray hits can sometimes have on electronic equipment – a good amount less rare at very high altitude and in space. They seem to have never heard of cloud chambers, either, and, after building one and seeing the effect for themselves, announced that yes, it seems those cosmic ray dealy-bobs really do exist. Pardon me?

I do like RadioLab, but my bullshit detector has clanged loudly more than once in the past as I listened, in maybe eight or ten episodes over the years. Their ubiquitous and multiple exclamations of “What?! I can’t believe it! But how?” have long fallen flat on my ears – not just because they always go over the top with their supposed disbelief/shock/surprise in this scripted show, but sometimes because I know the topic at hand actually came up at some length in mainstream science news stories years ago. When this happens, I say to myself, in Ray Goulding’s voice, “Wattaya, dumb? Don’t you know anything, you people?” (I’m quoting from the Bob & Ray sketch below – Ray’s on the left.)

But I don’t think that; I think they’re well aware and perhaps hope and trust that everyone has forgotten about them by now. Some of those news stories have occurred within the lifetime of RadioLab itself, but even for the older ones, Robert Krulwich especially, co-host of the show and also science correspondent for National Public Radio, is of an age that surely he remembers most of them. He’s the one I most suspect of putting on an act in such episodes. I can imagine him saying, “Yes, of course I heard of that back in the ’90s, but look, we gotta stick with the show’s M.O.: Salient facts are scripted as surprises known by none of us.”

Also galling about this episode is that they seemed to conclude that all the cases they talked about are highly likely to have been the result of cosmic ray hits, something which is certainly if minutely possible but, since there is no evidence after the fact, is certainly impossible to prove, or even say with any level of confidence unless you’re experimentally set up to detect the particles as they hit. Particularly egregious was their strong implication that an Australian Airbus in-flight upset was likely caused by a cosmic ray hit. (In effect, “See? Can’t even trust airplanes!”) Mushrooms would thrive in this steaming pile of horse potatoes. The Australian Transport Safety Board’s entirely opposite conclusion, after exhaustive study, was that Single Event Effects, the catchall name for such cosmic ray hits, were “very unlikely” to have been the cause of the malfunction. So RadioLab goes and finds some schmoe who says the equivalent of “So what they were really saying is that there’s still a pretty good chance, yeah?” and they nod enthusiastically – not because it makes any sense, but because it matches the narrative they chose to follow.

I often used to tell people in a nonchalant manner that due to a long-standing superstition among publishers, you can’t find the word “gullible” in any printed dictionary. The number whose immediate response was a wide-eyed “Really?” was not insignificant; they are perhaps the target audience for this episode.

“Yes, even I am dishonest. Not in many ways, but in some. Forty-one, I think it is.”
– Mark Twain in a letter to Joseph Twichell, 15 March 1905

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