Fact Check

I’m often surprised by common misconceptions, both when I am disabused of them and when I find out the number of people who belief them. When I learned that the Bohr model of the atom was false in high school Chemistry, I was furious at all the science teachers who had taught it to me without mentioning that it had been disproved. Obviously there was a good reason for that and I should try not to get worked up over such things. But often misconceptions are harmful and lead people into doing stupid things. The state government of Florida is made up entirely of climate change deniers, whose lack of preparation will lead to the deaths of millions. But this is well known and writing about is unlikely to change that fact. The misconceptions that really bother me are essentially unknown.

Many common misconceptions come from misunderstood or misconstrued statistics. In the words of Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Thats certainly true now that statistical information is available for everything. A good example of this is the myth of political polarization. The Pew Research center released a report describing two decades of change in American political opinion. Unfortunately titled “Political Polarization in the American Public,” it was interpreted to describe the radicalization of both the Right and the Left, that there were more Republicans, more Democrats, and less independents. But in fact these proportions have remained constant. The report really describes a process of sorting. The two parties are made up of people with more consistent ideologies and opinions than before. Gone are the liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. And as the parties square up more evenly, it creates the illusion of polarization, because the other side has people more consistently different from ourselves. And the silent majority of moderate independents is still there, wishing their representatives would stop bickering and get stuff done.

Another source of misconception is advertisement or lobbying. Much as the anti-drug movement produced an endless series of misconceptions about marijuana, now the anti-piracy movement spreads lies and half-trues against the act of copying information over the internet. Characterizing online piracy as “theft” the music and film industries imagine and claim that each act of reproduction is equivalent to a lost sale, often describing piracy as a loss measuring in millions or billions. However, when Norway succeeded in cutting piracy down to a negligible amount, the music industry’s revenue remained static. It is likely that downturns experienced by the industry since the creation of the internet are as much a result of online sales and streaming systems as much as piracy. This analysis does not include the possibility of piracy being legalized. It is impossible to measure (without testing) how much power the rule of law has to encourage buying through legal channels, even when enforcement is logistically impossible.

I’m always curious about the process by which people start to believe things. Sometimes its a result of good lying and sometimes happens organically, such as easily misunderstood statistics. There are a lot of other ways misconceptions can occur organically, but I’ll leave that for another time.


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