What is the shape of a raindrop? Going by the common raindrop symbol, you might think it’s round on the bottom and pointy on the top. In actuality, they are spherical when small, and become more pancake-shaped at larger sizes. The biggest raindrops make parachute shapes before breaking up into smaller drops (see video). So that’s an interesting, if not particularly useful, scientific fact.
So the next question is, do you feel misled by the raindrop symbol? Are you incensed by the misinformation?
So this is another one of those posts where I look back at the atheoskeptical movement, and talk about things that have bugged me for a long time. I’m thinking back to an old skepticism website, which used this as its symbol:
The website still exists, although it feels extremely dated now, to the point that I feel bad about picking on what is obviously some old professor’s work of love. But anyway, if you click on the symbol, it shares an anecdote in which a weatherperson justifies their use of the inaccurate raindrop symbol, saying that it is “good communication”. The page goes on to say,
This page is dedicated to the proposition that:
it is better to communicate good information than to offer misinformation in the name of good communication
My first reaction is that this seems like a rather petty thing to complain about. Although people may be misled about the shape of raindrops, there aren’t exactly a lot of raindrop-shape-related decisions we make in our everyday lives. I can only ever see this coming up in an educational setting, where the teacher would explain the truth about raindrops to a mildly surprised audience. Which I can only imagine enhancing students’ engagement with the subject.
But here I am complaining about a decade-old website, so perhaps I better not talk about petty.
The problem isn’t so much that it’s petty, it’s that raindrop shapes are presented alongside a competing concern–good communication–and the competing concern is dismissed out of hand. Was this a thing that skeptics used to do all the time, obnoxiously prioritize factual accuracy over communication? Well, judging by the number of terrible science talks I have attended, it’s at least a common attitude among scientists.
It’s funny, because both factual accuracy and communication are both aimed at the same goal: truth. In order to propagate truth, we need to have the truth in the first place, and then we need to communicate it to other people. Communication isn’t even a competing concern, it’s more like… another aspect of the exact same concern.
Perhaps the real difference in opinion between the professor and weatherperson is which truths they choose to prioritize. The professor was more concerned with the truth of raindrop shapes, whereas the weatherperson is more concerned with the truth of what the weather will be like tomorrow. But why is one truth more important than the other? What about all the other weather-related truths that nobody is prioritizing, such as why raindrops are shaped that way, or what is the statistical meaning of “chance of rain”?
One last thought I have, is that the raindrop seems to have a sort of “artistic truth” to it. My impression upon seeing rain is not seeing a bunch of spherical droplets, but rather elongated lines. That’s because raindrops fall very fast, and the shape is smeared across the line of motion. “Smear”, I recently learned, is a concept in animation used to convey motion. Without any smear, the raindrop would look motionless, which is definitely not scientifically true about raindrops. So maybe the raindrop shape was an accurate representation all along, and we just needed to talk to artists to explain how the truth was encoded.