Monday, May 29, 2006

spin of the Myth Busters

As long as I'm complaining about educational TV, I might as well talk about the Myth Busters episode that annoyed me so much. They were out to test the "myth" that cell phones don't really interfere with airplane navigation systems and that the real reason that cell phones are forbidden on airplanes is so that people are forced to use the much more expensive phones provided by the airline.

Now there are two parts to this claim: first that cell phones aren't a real danger to the airplane and second that there is a nefarious reason for banning cell phones (profit for the airline). I don't put much stock in the second part of the claim. I'm pretty sure that airplanes have been banning all electronic devices from before they had those phones, and the other things they ban like laptops, radios, and computer games are much less likely to cause trouble for an airplane than is a powerful broadcaster like a cell phone. If cell phones are really not a threat to navigation then the reason for banning them isn't the greed of the airlines, it's the fear of the unknown and the fear of litigation.

Myth Busters was really just testing the claim that cell phones cannot effect airplane electronics. They did so in their usual impractical, over-the-top way by trying to construct their own cockpit and testing the sensitivity of the instruments. It was a stupid idea to test things that way; a jury-rigged cockpit, thrown together in one day, with no attention paid to shielding or isolation, is not going to behave electronically like a real cockpit so it is no great surprise that with amplified signals on the bands used by some old cell-phone networks, they were able to show some interference.

Myth Busters made it sound like this was a chance discovery, but I suspect that the engineer who did the myth-busting deliberately chose to test those out-dated frequencies because he knew they were close to frequencies used by a particular navigation device. In other words, I think it was a setup.

When they took their jury-rigged cockpit to the airport, the system was so screwed up just by normal interference that they couldn't even do the test with it. In other words, they had a system that was so bad that it couldn't be used, and one of the problems it had was with certain out-dated cell-phone frequencies. In other words, even the setup didn't prove anything.

When they got into a real jet and tried to effect the navigation equipment with their signal generator, they were unable to effect the airplane electronics even with signals much more powerful than any cell phone could generate.

So, "myth confirmed" right? Nope. After all this, everyone sat down to chat about the experiments and all agreed: "myth busted".


Were those guys watching the same show I was? They were not able to demonstrate any effect at all on a real airplane and the system where they did display an effect would not have been usable in a real airplane! Just how did they bust this myth? I must have missed it.

They had a predetermined answer to this question, and they were just going through the motions. Throughout the show, there were occasional comments that struck me as decidedly non-objective, revealing that they thought they knew the new the answer before they did the experiments. Their final justification that "maybe there are some cell phones that could interfere with some navigation equipment and it just isn't practical to test all combinations" could have been given without doing all their useless experimenting. What their experimenting proved is that they were unable to find a significant effect, leaving the myth at best undecided. Failing to disprove the myth and then declaring it busted is just pathetic.

However, I'm not going to accuse the Myth Busters of deliberate deception as I did the History Channel. Myth Buster, at least, gave us all the information we needed to see that they were full of it. As far as I know they didn't hide anything (except how strong the signal that caused the deflection in the jury-rigged equipment was), they just put a ridiculous spin on it.

My conclusion? Myth Busters is busted, but not as bad as the History Channel.

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