Bluff The Listener Our panelists read three stories about the Scunthorpe Problem, a real term for something that showed up in the news this week, only one of which is true.
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Bluff The Listener

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Bluff The Listener

Bluff The Listener

Bluff The Listener

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Our panelists read three stories about the Scunthorpe Problem, a real term for something that showed up in the news this week, only one of which is true.

BILL KURTIS: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME, the NPR news quiz. I'm Bill Kurtis. We're playing this week with Helen Hong, Adam Burke and Maeve Higgins. And here again is your host at the Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago, Peter Sagal.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

Thank you, Bill. Right now...

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: ...It's time...

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Right now, it is time for the WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME Bluff the Listener game. Call 1-888-WAITWAIT to play our game on the air. Hi, you are on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

MEAGHAN LOOS-BECHT: Hi, this is Meaghan Loos-Becht, and I live in Missoula, Mont.

SAGAL: I love Missoula, Mont. - one of my favorite places. What do you do there?

LOOS-BECHT: Well, I work at a local TV station full-time, and I work at Animal Wonders, which is local exotic animal rescue and outreach.

SAGAL: Well, now wait a minute. Exotic animals.

LOOS-BECHT: Yes.

SAGAL: That's not dogs and cats, but things like - well, tell me. Things like what?

LOOS-BECHT: Well, we just rescued a baby beaver last summer.

SAGAL: Who are rescuing them from?

LOOS-BECHT: Well, so the...

(LAUGHTER)

MAEVE HIGGINS: Abusive beaver parents.

(LAUGHTER)

LOOS-BECHT: So this baby beaver had a severe disability. And so he gets to live the rest of his life with the rest of us.

HIGGINS: Does he have a lisp?

(LAUGHTER)

LOOS-BECHT: That would be so funny. He...

(LAUGHTER)

LOOS-BECHT: It sure would make our educational programs a little more interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, anyway, welcome to the show, Meaghan. You're going to play the game in which you have to tell truth from fiction. Bill, what is Meaghan's topic?

KURTIS: The Scunthorpe problem.

SAGAL: The Scunthorpe problem. It sounds like a terrible Robert Ludlum novel, and it might be. We haven't checked. But it's also a real term for something we saw written about in the news this week. Our panelists are going to tell you about it. Pick the one who's telling the truth, and you win our prize - the voice of your choice on your voicemail. Are you ready to play?

LOOS-BECHT: Absolutely.

SAGAL: All right. First, let's hear about the Scunthorpe problem from Helen Hong.

HELEN HONG: It's a struggle that many public radio fans know all too well. After years of listening to their favorite radio personalities, they finally get tickets to see them in person and show up excitedly at the venue only to experience the shock of their lives. That's what they look like?

(LAUGHTER)

HONG: Fresh Air host Terry Gross reports her most commonly heard feedback at live events is, but you're supposed to have long, flowing hair.

(LAUGHTER)

HONG: It happens so often that NPR has given it a name, the Scunthorpe problem, named after Eliza (ph) Scunthorpe. A longtime contributing member of WBUR in Boston, Ms. Scunthorpe at last scored tickets to see her favorite radio show, WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME. I guess I always imagined them to be, you know, really distinguished-looking.

(LAUGHTER)

HONG: Ms. Scunthorpe's unsettling experience came to a head when the host of the show, Peter Sagal, was announced. Leaping to her feet in dismay, Ms. Scunthorpe repeatedly yelled, boo, no. I don't believe you're him. Bring out the real Peter Sagal.

(LAUGHTER)

HONG: Unable to be appeased, Ms. Scunthorpe was escorted out of the show and off the premises. Well, you can bet I'm canceling my membership. There's no way that imposter was Peter Sagal. The Peter Sagal I know and love looks like Pierce Brosnan in "GoldenEye."

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: The Scunthorpe problem is people believing that public radio figures are more attractive than we really are and being shocked to find out the truth. Your next Scunthorpe 'splanation (ph) comes from Adam Burke.

ADAM BURKE: With so much intentional obscenity on the Internet, it seems that unintentional obscenity is also becoming a problem. Take the case of sports writer Natalie Weiner, who tried to log on to a website only to have the site's security protocols reject her name as offensive language.

It's part of what web developers refer to as the Scunthorpe problem, so-called because when certain AIs and Internet-monitoring algorithms are confronted by a name like that of the English industrial town Scunthorpe, they often flag it as objectionable, as it happens to contain within it a particular four-letter word that many find offensive. Quick hint, the word isn't Thor.

(LAUGHTER)

BURKE: As researcher Michael Veale puts it, some words, such as the common abbreviation of the name Richard, are harmless in certain contexts. But in other cases, parents might not want them used and will be flagged by certain types of program. Consequently, people with names like James Butts and Clark Aycock say they're victims of what's being called algorithmic bias, a computer's inability to distinguish unfortunate linguistic coincidence from deliberate filth.

It seems that after so many years of being plagued by dirty-minded 11-year-old boys, the Internet has turned into one...

(LAUGHTER)

BURKE: ...Who can't or won't distinguish whether Charity Buttkiss (ph) is a woman's name or just a very particular request on GoFundMe.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: The Scunthorpe problem...

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: ...A problem in computers trying to teach computers when a naughty word is not really a naughty word. And your last description of the Scunthorpe problem comes from Maeve Higgins.

HIGGINS: The Scunthorpe problem, if you're not familiar, is a term in biology for the tendency of human beings to react to the discovery of a new species by immediately trying to eat it.

It gets its name from an 1856 incident, when a scientist named Dr. Thomas (ph) Scunthorpe proudly presented the discovery of the platypus at a conference. He described it thusly. 'Tis the body of a weasel, the head of a duck and the teeth of a woman goat. The first question from the audience was, incredible discovery, Sir. What side dishes do you recommend?

(LAUGHTER)

HIGGINS: Weeks later, Dr. Scunthorpe ultimately released his findings in a paper called "The Platypus: Please Don't Eat It." He was ignored. Platypus populations plummeted, and the Scunthorpe problem was born.

SAGAL: All right.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: There is something real called the Scunthorpe problem, but is it, from Helen, the problem of people being inevitably disappointed when they find out what their favorite public radio personalities actually look like? Is it, from Adam Burke, the problem of people or words with names that could be dirty not being able to use computers 'cause the computers won't let them? Or is it, from Maeve Higgins, the problem of people immediately celebrating the discovery of any new species by immediately trying to eat it? Which of these is the real Scunthorpe problem?

LOOS-BECHT: Well, it's really funny because, recently, I looked up a picture of what you look like, Peter, and I was very shocked to find out what he looks like.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

BURKE: You 100 percent could've replaced the word shocked with pleasantly surprised.

(LAUGHTER)

LOOS-BECHT: I wanted Helen's story to be correct, but I'm pretty sure it's Adam's story.

SAGAL: You're pretty sure it's Adam story? The Scunthorpe problem refers to a problem in computer programming?

LOOS-BECHT: Correct.

SAGAL: All right. Well, you've chosen Adam's story then. And to bring you the real definition of the Scunthorpe problem, we spoke to somebody who knows all about it.

NATALIE WEINER: My last name, Weiner, triggered an algorithm that was designed to prevent people from using pornographic content or something.

SAGAL: And that was Natalie Weiner, a staff writer at SB Nation and victim of the real Scunthorpe problem because she can't enter her name into computers.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Congratulations, Meaghan. You were right. Adam Burke was telling the truth. You picked it. He gets a point. You win our prize - any voice you like saying pretty much anything you want.

(LAUGHTER)

LOOS-BECHT: Wonderful. Thank you so much.

SAGAL: You're very, very welcome. Can I ask before you go...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: ...What did you imagine I looked like?

BURKE: Can you read that description of a platypus again?

(LAUGHTER)

LOOS-BECHT: Yeah, maybe. I don't know. Yeah. That description sounds pretty good.

SAGAL: All right.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Everybody jumps on you.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right. Thank you, Meaghan. Thank you for playing.

LOOS-BECHT: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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