Hip hype and other fiction

By Larry Ferro

My wife arrived home from our daughter’s dance competition.

“They cried,” she said.

“Who cried?” I asked.

“The judges.”

“Judges? Why’d they cry?”

“They were moved by the performance.”

“Moved ?” I said. “Moved as in emotionally moved?”

“Yes, moved.”

“Uh huh,” I said. “These judges,” I asked, “they get paid, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “What’s your point? You think they were faking it? Can’t believe your daughter’s performance was THAT good?”

“Sure I can but how emotional can you get about little white girls from Chubbuck busting moves like fly girls from the Bronx? “

My wife’s eyes narrow.

“Look,” I say. “In ten years of watching dance competitions I’ve never seen a judge cry but now they cry all the time. American idol, X Factor, the Voice, it’s the new thing. You cry; the audience goes wild. You cry, everyone says, weren’t those judges great? Get’em back here, we’ll pay them anything. So they cry.”

After a long pause my wife says, “You are so skeptical.”

That, I am. Being skeptical these days is good and necessary because the line between what’s real and what’s hype is getting harder and harder to define.

CNN, the new internet equivalent of the National Enquirer, will do anything to sell ads. “Breaking news” can now be a story about a cute kitty or another rumor about Flight 370.

CBS is not much better. An exclusive, 60 minutes celebrity interview more often than not, mysteriously coincides with that celebrity’s new movie release which was produced by none other than CBS’s parent company.

Recently I listened to an interview with a supposed researcher claiming that kitchen sponges contain the most bacteria of any location in the house. “So what do you use to clean?” asked the interviewer. “Well, I’ve switched to the new disposable wipes for my countertops and surfaces.” Really, I said to myself. Sponges CAN have swarms of bacteria but not if they are loaded with soap. If that’s case, they have none, zero. So was this “study” done to sell disposable wipes? Hmmm.

Sometimes I don’t mind getting duped. I love Pawn Stars but when Chumlee suddenly spouts detailed knowledge of sunken Spanish treasure, I get skeptical. Even Rick Harrison’s lines can seem memorized. Perhaps the fault, like so many other reality shows, lies not in our beloved Pawn Stars but in the producers who whisper in their ears before filming.

There is a battle going on in the media for our short, little attention spans and it does not seem to have any limits. So how are we to judge? What’s true and what’s not? It can help to have some knowledge of science.

A summer job I once held involved making biochemicals. It was a tedious, exacting job. One day I told my boss that I could make chemical X faster and cheaper than the original method. “Try it,” he replied and so I did. I produced a fine white powder presumably identical to the original. It tested, however, on the very edge of acceptable quality. “Test it again,” my boss said. This time the product was slightly out of spec. A co-worker ran the test a third time and found it good. “Send it to the main lab,” my boss said. Three times they ran it and three times it came back bad. “What do I do?” I asked and my boss came back with something I’ve taken to heart. “Trust the numbers,” he said. “Four times it was out, twice it was in. Start over, son.”

And so it went. I learned to trust the numbers. Numbers, as boring as they can be, tell you something. Lots of numbers mean something; few numbers, not so much.

A single study, for instance, linking cholesterol to heart disease means little. Ten studies showing the same is significant and a hundred studies means you better take note. The road to consensus however, is filled with noise. A headline may triumphantly proclaim the benefits of caffeine one day while decrying it the next. Some scientists, for a short period in the seventies, lauded a cooling earth only to disavow it later.

Science, in its minutia, is not perfect. In the aggregate, however, it is as close to perfection as we will come. This then, is where I place my bets. Errors and inherent biases subject to all experimentation average out when subjected to a wide variety of researcher’s methods.

This is why global warming is real. No single study was trusted in isolation. Instead, hundreds of studies from many unique groups combined to give consensus. Biologists, environmentalists, geologists, oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, even accountants who track annual energy usage, all weighed in. Global warming is a fact, not an opinion. The numbers don’t lie.

Yes, within these numbers there are outliers, there will always be in the minutia of science. These outliers are cherry-picked by those with personal and political motives, then publicized to make them appear bigger in scope than they really are. Such was the case when first we discovered that lead and tobacco harmed you.

Accurately judging what’s real and what’s hype is not the exclusive domain of one political party. Consider GMO’s. If you genetically modify rice to grow in dry environments (potentially feeding millions) and you test that rice for every known carcinogen, (something that is achievable in weeks, maybe months) how can the risks possibly outweigh the rewards?

And, when it comes to nuclear power, if you think that engineers cannot design boxes to effectively contain the invisible particles that emanate from, what amounts to a couple of truckloads of waste per year per plant, you are refusing to delve into the science. There is no cleaner, denser energy source that can reduce CO2 right now, than nuclear.

So stay skeptical my friends. Live long and prosper.

Larry Ferro is a chemical engineer living in Pocatello.