Challenger Disaster

What does the Challenger disaster tell us about the meaning of “evidence”?

We’ve just been watching the excellent new BBC/Open University movie, The Challenger, starring William Hurt, telling the story of how Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman uncovered the truth behind the 1986 space shuttle disaster.

As a former physicist with a passion for science stretching back as far as I can remember, I’m getting increasingly concerned about the way the the meaning of the word “evidence” has been subtly changing over the last 40 odd years, to the point where it now means the opposite of what it originally meant.

Language is, of course, constantly evolving. There are many words which now mean something very different to what they originally meant. For most of human history that’s been a natural,organic process. But ever since Edward Bernays combined the science of crowd psychology with the psychoanalysis of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, nearly a hundred years ago now, the sciences of Public Relations, Messaging and Language Management have been going from strength to strength.


The importance of language management in multinational companies has never been greater that today,” wrote Dr. Anne-Wil Harzing and Dr. Alan J Feely in the introduction to this paper published in Cross-cultural Management: An International Journal in 2002.

And things have moved on a pace since then. In June 2010, the British Journalism Review announced We are all in PR now:

It is time to admit that the two disciplines of journalism and PR are two sides of the same coin and that there is now complete freedom of movement between them.

When I read that I was appalled. Like poachers and gamekeepers, journalists and PR wonks aren’t two sides of the same coin, they’re opposite sides of the fence. PR buries inconvenient truths. Journalism, like science, is supposed to reveal them!

Not that it matters any more. The writer of that British Journalism Review piece, Trish Evans, runs a degree course at the University of Westminster. Old school journalists and scientists might think PR is a threat, but the next generation won’t. Spin doctors like Trish Evans will see to that.

So what happens next? Complete freedom of movement between science and PR? Yes, I think so. And after that? Complete freedom of movement between PR and the Law? I can hear the judge’s instructions to the jury now:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. The eye witness testimony before you linking the smoking gun with the defendant is purely anecdotal and therefore must be dismissed. In contrast, peer reviewed, statistical meta-studies have proved that rich and successful people like the defendant have no reason to commit robbery and murder, but members of the lower orders do. Therefore, I am instructing you to find the defendant innocent of all charges and that nasty little upstart who claims to have seen the defendant dumping the smoking gun in a nearby wheelie bin, guilty as the day he was born.”

You think it will never happen? But it already has. Who falsified documents to justify invading Iraq? Who got sacked for it? Who went on to make millions from consulting in Middle East oil deals?

If Iraq is too long ago, how about this: Who broke the law by bugging all our telephone calls and emails? Who are we planning to arrest for it? Those who did the bugging? Or those who revealed what they were up to?

Which is why watching The Challenger was such a pleasure. In a world spinning further and further away from anything vaguely approaching reality, let alone morality, what a joy it was to spend an hour or two in the company of an old-school scientist who still knew the difference between right and wrong, and why it matters.

Here are a couple of my favourite Feynman quotes from The Challenger:

Interesting, the definition of the word “failure”.

Science teaches us what the rules of evidence are. We mess with that at our peril.

I’d like to include a link to the full Challenger film, but it is the BBC after all! We may have paid to make the movie, but that doesn’t mean we own it.

What I can do is embed this YouTube video featuring an interview with the real Richard Feynman and footage of the moment he “startled” the official inquiry by demonstrating that the rubber ‘O‘ rings didn’t do what the “scientific data” provided by the manufacturers said they did. Someone must own the copyright to this video, but they’re obviously a lot more public-spirited than the BBC because they haven’t taken down yet.

It’s interesting to note that the chairman of the inquiry, William Rogers, thought Feynman’s conclusions could be “too damaging to NASA” and wanted them suppressed. If Feynman had followed orders instead of his conscience, the truth would never have come out.

As it was, he was allowed to include a “toned-down” version of his conclusions in an appendix, which ended with these words:

NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Replace the word “NASA” with “the BBC” or “the government”, and the word “technology” with “society” or “world”, and the same principles should apply today. Except Challenger was nearly 30 years ago, and things were very different then. The generation that fought a World War against fascism was still in the workplace, and the Nuremberg principle, that following orders is not an acceptable excuse, was still fresh in their minds.

And Feynman hadn’t just lived through the war. He’d played a big part in building the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So his conscience probably pricked him more than most.

Now the last of that generation are disappearing into the dust, things are very different. These days, anyone who tries to follow Feynman’s example by putting the demands of their conscience above the orders of their superiors is most likely to be tried for treason and facing the death penalty.

Oh how the times they have a changed! To paraphrase Trish Evans, we’re all fascists now, I guess.

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