The intrepid team of the Australian TV show “MythBusters” works tirelessly to test out urban myths and folk legends in the real world, including such burning questions as whether downing Pop Rocks with cola can cause your stomach to explode, or whether a needle can, in fact, be found in a haystack.
I had always assumed that the intrepid scientists of this show were always on the side of truth. That is, I thought so until the day I learned, to my sorrow, that even they are fallable. And it’s all my mother’s fault.
One day the show was testing out the “five second rule” – so beloved by parents of small children – that if you pick food up off the floor within five seconds, it will still be ok to eat. The show’s scientists tested this rule by dropping food at various places throughout a house, waiting between two and six seconds to pick it up, and then seeing whether there was any significant difference in bacterial growth on the food.
They could find no measurable difference, and therefore they declared the five second rule to be a busted myth. End of story.
Except that it’s not the end of the story.
As it happens, I saw this episode sometime after I had listened to a well-reasoned exposition on this subject by my mom. She explained the logic behind the five second rule. The point is not how long you leave it on the floor – two seconds, or six seconds or twenty seconds – but whether, soon after having dropped the food, you pick it up and promptly eat it.
As opposed to, say, coming home from work or school in the afternoon, finding that cookie you had accidentally dropped on the floor in the morning, and deciding to pop it in your mouth anyway – an egregious violation of the five second rule.
What my mom explained to me was that the real point of the rule is not how long the food is on the floor, but whether you eat the food right away. Bacteria take time to grow. Dropping food on the floor will likely expose it to a small amount of bacteria. If you eat the food right away, your body’s immunological defenses will easily overwhelm the few pesky microbes that have attached themselves to your snack.
But if you leave the food for any length of time, the bacteria will do what bacteria do best when presented with a tasty morsel – start to grow at an exponential rate. So if you pop that same food into your mouth some hours later, your immune system finds itself facing an entire army of microscopic invaders. Not a very good scenario for the home team.
One could make a strong argument in this case that for all of its efforts, the “MythBusters” team was investigating the wrong question. Rather than being busted, the five second rule simply needed to be properly understood.
And so I found myself questioning all of the “MythBusters” experiments. Could it be that these people have been asking the wrong questions on other occasions as well? Is it possible that a beloved TV show, one I had esteemed and looked upon, reverently, as a paragon of pure and disinterested science, was, in fact (gulp) mere entertainment?