If today's social media apps were wired to an old-fashioned audio VU meter, they would undoubtedly be pegged, deep in the red zone, the place where permanent hearing damage is imminent. (Insert obligatory image of an aging heavy metal rocker with hearing loss and artificial knees.) When coupled with the 24 hour news cycle, an amazing number of rumors, innuendos, retorts, memes, and yes, sometimes actual facts, buttressed by real evidence, echo and reverberate across the infosphere.
And in the "you can't make this stuff up" category, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is now on Amazon's best seller list. One of my academic colleagues remarked wanly that he hoped it was selling as literature (doubleplusgood) and not as an instruction manual (doubleplusungood). I hope he is right.
The cacophony is enough to make one yearn for the good old days, when Uncle Walter and Huntley-Brinkley reported the news every night, and reputed Elvis and Bigfoot sightings were just supermarket tabloid fodder. D. B. Cooper and Mrs. Robinson, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. And for those of you too young to remember either Elvis or D. B. sightings, think of them as an inside joke we played on ourselves, and take a stroll down memory lane. (See Elvis, D.B., and the Red Caddy.) Thank you, thank you very much!
Now where was I, before my shrinking attention span was seized by another shiny object? Ah yes, I was about to opine that the declining signal to noise ratio haunting our public discourse is a deeply worrisome trend that endangers us all. Narrowcasting ideas to like-minded individuals simply reinforces predispositions and stereotypes. Broadband communication, with rich information content and diverse perspectives, requires – wait for it -- broad bands. (See Contemplative Reflection and Instantaneous Communication for other thoughts on this.) More generally, the purpose of new information is to make one think, even if in my case it leads to the sound of grinding gears and the unsavory smell of burning rubber.
Complex, wicked problems are, by definition, not amenable to simple, stereotypical solutions and 15 second sound bites, no matter what anyone may tell you. Nature has a way of punishing hubris. That brings me to the parable in this little essay.
On O-Rings and the Facts
After the space shuttle Challenger exploded during launch, President Reagan convened the Rogers commission to determine the cause of the catastrophe, which had killed the crew, including a schoolteacher, on live television. It was quickly apparent that a solid rocket booster (SRB) failure was to blame, with the flexible O-rings joining the SRB sections being the primary culprit. The questions were obvious – how and why did this happen?
Ultimately, the commission determined that the risks of catastrophic failure for each space shuttle mission were much higher than initially believed; the space shuttle was not a "space truck," as had been hyped and advertised, but a complex, delicate instrument. When coupled with management problems and "go fever," mission failure and loss of life were inevitable.
The commission, as these things always do, included several notables in aerospace, engineering and management; one of them was the Nobel Prize winning Caltech physicist, Richard Feynman. Dick drove home the O-ring failure in his own, inimitable way. First, he placed a piece of the O-ring in a glass of ice water; then he waited. After the O-ring had chilled, he pulled it from the water and showed that it had lost flexibility, which would create a porous seal for the hot gases of the SRB. (Watch him explain it here.) In a classic understatement, he said this might have "some significance" for the problem.
Dick later observed, "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." I have never forgotten this message, and the Rogers Commission report still sits on my bookshelf as a reminder.
It's a simple, but powerful lesson – the facts do matter, and no obfuscation or doublespeak can change that. This is especially true in science and engineering. In the end, there is no spin; there is no truthiness; and there are no alternative facts. There are just the facts, something Joe Friday understood. Nature is pretty particular about that.
And one more thing – Elvis has left the building, no matter what Twitter or the tabloids may suggest.