Science journalism approaches terminal velocity

Regarding the sad state of science journalism, or the public perception thereof:

I was reading this article in Popular Mechanics, “How to fall 35,000 feet–and survive”, basically a tongue-in-cheek discussion of unlikely cases of survival from no-parachute freefall. And at the end of the article is a long stream of comments about one line in the article:

Lower body weight reduces terminal velocity, plus reduced surface area decreases the chance of impalement upon landing.

Now, just to be clear, that’s statistically true – people who weigh less will almost always have lower terminal velocities during a fall. There’s no controversy, it’s basic physics applied to human body shapes.

So it’s interesting to watch the confusion unroll. Several commenters think that Galileo proved that all terminal velocities are equal. (That would be the sorry state of science literacy.) Then there are a bunch of commenters who show up to correct those people, by claiming that lower mass means less momentum. (Getting warmer….). Then they’re contradicted by the people who claim that smaller people have lower surface area, so they should fall faster. (Getting colder…).

My favorite:

Lower weight reduces terminal velocity because f = mass x acceleration. If your mass is less the acceleration pushing up on you is more so your downward acceleration is reduced.

N2F! (That would be Newton’s Second Law FAIL!).

And then there are the people who point out that the ratio of surface area to volume is allometric, so lower mass tends to go with relatively high surface area (Warmer…). After a while, a redundant slew of references to the Wikipedia “Terminal Velocity” article start showing up. You get the idea, it’s like grading an undergraduate physics essay. It converges chaotically on the truth.

What I noticed: Pretty much all the immediate reactions assume that the writer made an obvious mistake. They more easily accept that a clear error of fact, opposite to the truth, was printed by a popular science magazine, than stop and think, or do a cursory check to see if their understanding might be, shall we say, incomplete.

That’s the sign of a profession in trouble! Lazy people are universal. Lazy people trained to assume you’re wrong are a problem.