News Flash: Memes are Wrong


I love reading the BBC international news website. Its coverage of world events is better written than so many other mainstream outlets, its ads are less annoying, and it understates its comments section (when there is one), thoroughly guarding itself from the stupidity that haunts other online news sources.

It also has more than its fair share of very cool stories.

The other day I linked to a story of theirs covering research on the relationship between brain activity and words, because that is of great interest to me given its relevance to my own life. Demography has always been an intriguing subject to me (for a time I considered going to grad school  in that area), and yesterday they posted a piece to their Magazine section (human interest stories for the smart and the curious) of the total human population throughout all of history.

The author wrote this to dispel the myth that there are more humans alive now than the sum of all humans who have died in the past. This meme has been around for a while, but it got particular attention around Halloween last year when it was formally declared that the world population reached 7 billion. Simple math of rounded, general estimate numbers will dismiss that completely made-up statement very quickly to anybody who has the slightest idea of how population has grown over the past two hundred years, or how high child mortality was before the modern age, or how much earlier new generations were born before standard education, women’s rights, and birth control came around.We Won't Fall For Your Bullshit

People who read BBC news and its Magazine section would have been exposed to these kinds of critical thinking skills. A regular feature, which unfortunately is no longer easily found on the site for those outside of the UK, called Go Figure by statistician Michael Blastland explains how to read into numbers that come up in the news. This kind of education and enlightenment is lacking, because news sources assume their readers aren’t interested in the details behind study results, and readers would rather go with their first interpretation and get into arguments in comments sections where they’re completely wrong. If other news media explained the numbers more clearly, or at least like the BBC had a columnist around to explain how statistics should be read in general, we would be a far more informed society. Reading doesn’t help much if the content is interpreted wrong.

Imagine how much society could improve if people were better informed, and in a proper context. Given the ubiquity of American politics coverage in media of any anglophone country of the developed world, we all know of some areas of improvement for the social and political awareness of the citizenry – if not for electing better representatives, then at least for not encouraging politicians to spout out such bullshit.


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