It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of information, it was the age of ignorance. The emergence last week of two news stories, and the story of how they did or did not flourish, casts harsh light on the state of journalism and our democratic republic. One story was funded by NASA, conducted with rigorous standards of research, reviewed by peer scientists and published in a legitimate scientific journal. Its subject was the end of the world as we know it. The other was tossed off by a handful of students in a science class, observed few scientific standards, was reviewed by no one and published nowhere in the academic press. It was about dropping food on the floor. So you guess: Which one went viral around the world, generated tons of newsprint and oceans of comment in every medium of communication; and which one was virtually ignored except when it was attacked as misleading?
Of course you got it right, I loaded the question just like the pollsters do.
Let’s start with the second story. Everybody else did. The headline in TIME Magazine, former paragon of journalistic excellence and integrity, said and I quote: “Science Confirms the Five Second Rule is a Real Thing.” Can we just take a few hours here to count the things that are wrong with this headline? Not mistaken, but plain, dead, self-evidently wrong.
“Science” does not do, or say, anything. Any more than “religion” advises against eating shellfish, or “politics” says poor people are lazy.
The five-second rule is not a rule. Nor is it a theory, as other writers identified it. It is, as the TIME writer properly identified it, an adage, a joke, really, that people invoke when they drop food. Pick it up in five seconds or less, we laugh, and the germs will not have had enough time to jump on. To actually run an experiment to test this proposition is akin to examining whether the pants of people who lie actually catch fire.
The headline tells us that this adage is “a Real Thing.” It took “Science” to prove that this thing is a thing? Oh no, wait, it confirmed it. Which is to say, someone claimed the adage is a real thing, someone said no, it’s not, and now science has confirmed that it is, in fact, a thing.
Okay, fine. We understand that headlines are not written by the people who write the stories, and that there is so little time today we cannot expect the headline-writers to actually read the stories, so we can hope the writer is a bit more meticulous. Alas, hope dies fast. The writer attributes what follows to “research.” Please refer to point 1.) above.
The writer further identifies the “research” by saying it took place at “the U.K.’s Aston University.” Now, technically, all this sentence does is tell us where the thing happened, as if it said it took place “in a cow pasture behind Joe Dougherty’s pub.” The effect here, however, is to put behind these findings the academic reputation of Aston University. Which is not unreasonable, given that the source of all of this is a news release put out by that august institution. (Headline: “Researchers Prove Five Second Rule is Real.” Sigh.)
What did science actually discover at Aston University? Here’s the heart of it. “Time is a significant factor in the transfer of bacteria from a floor surface to a piece of food.” If the food lies on the floor or just a little time, you get relatively few floor-bacteria on it. The longer it stays…well, you get the idea, surely?
The five-second rule is nowhere recorded on a stone tablet, or on papyrus, or anywhere else its wording can be checked. But if it states that food picked up quickly is safe, the Aston “research” actually disproved the rule; some bacteria transfer instantaneously. If the rule is that food left longer gets more bacteria, then a) it is so self-evident as to require no confirmation, and b) the present effort confirms it.
The researchers were students in a science class. They ran three repetitions of each timed food drop, far fewer than would be required of an actual scientific study. The news release trumpeting their astounding conclusions was reviewed by no one, and appeared in no journal of science. As a result, Aston University and its intrepid band of seniors is world famous.
The other story is far less compelling. A large, broad-based, interdisciplinary study funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation among others, conducted over a long period of time according to rigorous standards, its peer-reviewed findings accepted for publication in a prestigious journal found that total collapse of industrial society is likely. After a full exposition by the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, and by the Daily Impact, the story rattled around fringe media outlets for a few days and died.
Before it did, it was viciously attacked by a blogger for Discover Magazine, Keith Kloor, who found it fraudulent that the study was associated with NASA, despite conclusive evidence that it was, in fact, partly funded by NASA (which does not mean that NASA specifically endorses its findings, of course, any more than Aston University has an official position in how long you can leave your food lying on the floor before consuming it. It does mean, however, that the study met stringent NASA standards for funding.)
The upshot: everyone in the world knows the five-second rule is a real thing, while nobody believes the industrial world’s doomsday clock has about five minutes left to run. And now we know why.