Does lightning prefer metal or wood?

The video below features a demonstration that lightning is as likely to strike wood as metal.

I want to focus on one line from the video. After showing simulated lightning strikes that hit a wooden rod five times and a copper rod five times, the narrator says

It’s five all, proof that metal does not attract lightning.

No, such an experiment would prove no such thing. I imagine the researchers conducted a much larger experiment and selected a representative sample. And I’m willing to accept their conclusion that metal does not attract lightning. But I would not accept such a conclusion from an experiment with 10 samples. What the experiment proves is that, under their experimental conditions, lightning will sometimes strike wood even while a metal rod is nearby.

I have two complementary criticisms of this made-for-video science.

  1. The results could easily happen if their conclusion were not true.
  2. The results could easily not have happened if there conclusion were true.

Suppose in reality, lightning will not always strike the metal rod, but will prefer the metal. Suppose in the long run, lightning will strike the metal rod 60% of the time. It would not be unusual in that case to do an experiment with 10 strikes and find that half or more of the strikes hit wood.

Now suppose the researchers are exactly correct. In the long run, lightning has no preference for one rod or the other. What would viewers have thought if they showed a clip of 10 strikes, of which 6 hit metal and 4 hit wood? Many would have howled in protest. If lightning really had no preference for metal, the result should have been an even split, right? This is an example of the Law of Small Numbers. People underestimate the variability of small samples.

If the probability of lightning striking each rod is 50%, then in a sequence of experiments each containing 10 strikes, most will not have an exact 5-5 split. If you flip 10 fair coins, the most likely outcome is a 5-5 split, but this will happen only about 1/4 of the time. It’s more likely that you’ll get near a 5-5 split, sometimes with more heads and sometimes with more tails.

The exact 5-5 split in the video is good showmanship, but it’s misleading science.

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4 thoughts on “Does lightning prefer metal or wood?

  1. Why do we have lightning rods, then? I thought they are prevalent because they were found in-the-field to deter lightning from striking wooden houses. And maybe there’s some story with Ben Franklin or something.

  2. Lightning rods attract lightning in part because they’re pointy. A wooden rod might attract lightning, but it couldn’t conduct the current; it would just burn. A metal rod can conduct the lightning to a wire leading to ground.

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