Several years ago, I watched with great interest an episode of Mythbusters concerning the “myth” of electrocution by urinating on the third rail. According to Wikipedia this was part of the first season, episode three, original air date October 10, 2003. I watched with great interest because I believed that I had read about this very “myth” many years ago.
First off, we must consider that Mythbusters is not “real” science in the sense that it is peer-reviewed and published in scientific literature. It’s television, and on television there is often an appeal to the lowest common denominator. Thus as time went on, Mythbusters became less scientific and more sensational, with episodes dealing with farting, shitting, and lots and lots of explosions. Oh, yeah, and that hot chick with the really nice rack…
But let’s take a close look at this particular “myth.” First off, in real science, whether performed by amateurs or professionals, you list prior research. Mythbusters almost NEVER does this, and certainly didn’t in this episode. Yet the “myths” have to come from somewhere. It was telling that the third rail episode named the victim as “O’Malley,” the stereotypical drunken Irishman.
Mythbusters, and in particular Adam Savage, have been embraced by skeptics as well. Savage has given public presentations at JREF conferences, and is considered by many a celebrity skeptic. But is it a good idea for skepticism to embrace a TV program that engages in sloppy science? A fundamental problem in the whole concept of Mythbusters is in the name itself, which presupposes that the claims they are testing are myths. Yes, I understand that “Claim Testers” is simply not sexy enough for TV. Too cerebral! Not enough explosions! More tits!
Good science CANNOT presuppose that any claim, at least those that are not logically impossible, to be a “myth.”
But lets get back to the “myth” of the electrocution death of Joseph Patrick O’Malley, who was in fact a real person and not a myth at all! How did Mythbusters botch their test design and come to the wrong conclusion?
Pressure! Mythbusters correctly concluded that under the circumstances of their test design, an electrolyte stream’s laminar flow would break up into small droplets, and thus be unable to carry an electrical current from the third rail to O’Malley’s penis. The problem is that Mythbusters used a feed flow based on one trip to the toilet by Savage. Well, as any man knows who has had a hugely full bladder and no prostatic hypertrophy, a vastly more robust stream of urine can be produced than that seen on the Mythbusters test dummy. This is because of the simple reason that one can bear down on the bladder with one’s abdominal muscles! You have a simple case of grossly unrealistic test conditions.
But an even more egregious breach of scientific protocol was committed in this episode: Empirical reality trumps theory and test design.
In 1967 a book was published entitled Where Death Delights written by Marshall Houts about Milton H. Helpern who was the chief medical examiner of New York City at the time. Chapter 15 is entitled “Be Careful What You Do to the World,” and details the strange case of one Joseph Patrick O’Malley, who died of electrocution by urinating on the third rail of a Bronx subway.
On page 287 Houts writes:
“Dr. Helpern made his determination of ‘accidental death’ on the basis of three small burns. One burn was on the inside surface of the right thumb, on the inside surface of the right index finger, and the third covered a somewhat larger area on the head of the penis.”
On Page 289 Houts continues:
“The fate of this particular Joseph Patrick O’Malley also involved the third rail of the subway. This is the ‘hot’ rail through which 600-volt electric current passes to furnish the energy for the subway trains. It parallels the inside rail of each track and is embedded in cement so that it is covered on three sides. The fourth side is open, facing the train, so that the contact wheel of the subway train can run against this ‘hot’ third rail to pull in the electrical current to move the motors.”
“The burns on the head of the penis and on the thumb and forefinger were obvious electrical burns.”
“For one reason or another, this Joseph Patrick O’Malley elected to literally urinate on the world at this particular time. The stream of urine had come into contact with the 600 volts of the third rail. The current coursed up the stream to cause the burns on his body as the electricity entered it. In all probability, he was dead from electrocution before the train ever hit his body.”
What’s particularly galling about this episode is this statement by the show’s announcer at the very end of the episode: “In fact, there are no recorded cases of O’Malley, or anyone else, dying like this in the New York Subway.”
Remember, just because someone wants to wear the mantle of “scientist” or “skeptic” doesn’t mean that they are above scrutiny. Unfortunately this particular episode of Mythbusters was more like Monsterquest…
Where Death Delights, Marshall Houts, 1967. Library of Congress Number 67-21513