You know, I’m not sure why I bother, but for some reason I just can’t help myself. When I’m in the truck and the local NPR affiliate is playing something I’m not interested in, I’ll sometimes flip over to a talk/sports radio station out of Birmingham. Inevitably, I end up turning the radio off in disgust (if not full out anger) within about 15 minutes. The people I hear on the air on this station represent possibly the most consistent collection of what I call “determined ignorance” that I know of. On the way out to lunch today I flipped over there, and this one was so bad I decided I had to post about it when I got back.
I thought at first I was going to be okay. The show that was on was a call-in car repair clinic show (think Car Talk, but without the college-educated hosts). It’s usually pretty good. The people on the show really seem to know what they’re talking about, and their advice usually sounds very reasonable to me. Unfortunately, today the host decided that answering car questions wasn’t enough. I guess he felt like he needed to liven up the show a bit. I didn’t hear the beginning, and I turned it off before the end, but the gist of it was him asking the question, “Why does the shuttle need a gas gauge?” Imagine a redneck asking that question in a REALLY sarcastic tone, and you’ll be somewhere close.
He, of course, is referring to the fact that Discovery’s launch is currently delayed because NASA discovered that one of the shuttle’s four hydrogen fuel gauges was malfunctioning. This guy went further to make some kind of crack about how he has a 20-year old Fiat, and its gauges still work. He then made a comment that started something like “What are they gonna do, get the thing up in orbit and…” I turned it off right then, but I can imagine that the joke he was going for involved something about the shuttle pulling over at the closest filling station.
Determined ignorance. This guy knows machinery. He works on cars. If he had stopped and thought about it for about 1 minute, he could have answered his own question. He didn’t, though, because that wasn’t the point. The point was to make a cheap shot and get his audience to nod their heads, self-congratulate their wisdom, and say how much they like listening to the show.
I know absolutely nothing about the details of the sensor failure, but with about 1 minute worth of thought, I think I already have some pretty good ideas about why the shuttle “needs a gas gauge.” You’ve got a giant space truck being propelled into orbit by some of the most powerful engines known to man. There are so many things that can go wrong, that it’s impossible to predict all of them (though NASA in general seems to do a pretty damned good job of preparing for most of them). If something goes wrong, the folks in the cabin can’t just pull over and open up the hood to see what happened. It’s imperative that the crew (and, more importantly all the countless trained support people on the ground) know exactly what happened as quickly as possible. Since humans can’t get out and look, the telemetry is all they have. Personally, I want as many sensors and gauges on that thing as they can possibly justify. If they want to put in a sensor that measures the frequency at which the cup holder is vibrating, then I say more power to them.
I wonder how our ignorant friend would react if confronted on the air with the fact that one of the most important reasons we know what happened to Columbia is because it was packed with more sensors than shuttles usually are? Would he crack wise about “What does the shuttle need a temperature gauge for?” if he knew that it was the large number of temperature sensors in the wing that allowed us to figure out EXACTLY how Columbia’s demise progressed? The astronauts going up in Discovery are almost certainly safer because of that information. The answer is, of course, that this guy wasn’t thinking. I can only hope that his listeners were.
Stick to cars, and keep your mouth out of things you aren’t even willing to try to understand. NASA has problems, but the last thing they (and we) need is the kind of cynicism that your remarks inevitably produce in your listeners. Shut the fuck up and take the next call.