Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think. — Niels Bohr
By now, most readers (in the US, at least) will have heard about the collision yesterday between two trains on the Washington DC Metro system (our subway). Sadly, several people were killed, and quite a large number were injured. I want to express my condolences to anyone who was affected, and my sympathy to all those who, while not directly harmed, were and are inconvenienced by the service disruptions that followed.
My purpose in writing is to highlight an aspect of the news coverage of this accident that I find a little troubling, especially since I have noticed this phenomenon before. I’m referring to the apparent almost total ignorance of even basic science, and physics in particular, on the part of some reporters.
Yesterday evening, as I was coming home from a meeting, I heard a radio news report of the collision, in which the announcer said that it was not known whether the two trains were on the same track, or different tracks. I thought it pretty improbable that they were on different tracks, but it’s possible to imagine such an accident — in a switching yard, for example. When I got home, I saw a picture on TV of the accident scene, and it was immediately apparent that the trains must have been on the same track. (You can see a similar image as #17 in this slide show at the Washington Post web site.) The accident occurred at a station, where the two tracks are curved in an approximately circular arc. Both of the trains are on the inside track (closer to the center of the notional circle). Somehow I doubt that a train on the outside managed to hop sidewise to get onto the inside track so it could collide with the other train.
As I mentioned, I have seen this kind of thing before. For example, when the attack was made against the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, I remember watching a newscast, and hearing a reporter say that someone had suggested that the damage to the ship was the result of an internal explosion. While he was saying this, the image in the background showed the side of the ship, and the hull plates that had been bent inward by the force of the explosion were clearly visible. (The Wikipedia article on the incident has a sample image.) I can think of no way that such a damage pattern could be caused by an internal explosion — and of course, it wasn’t.
I am not sure whether this kind of thing is a result of an over-the-top effort to be “fair” to all points of view, no matter how ludicrous, or whether it just reflects the general level of scientific ignorance among people in our society. I find it a bit disturbing, though — there are generally enough crazy rumors going around after events like this, without the press manufacturing new ones.