Facts in their proper place - Part 1

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

For the next few posts, I'd like to talk about facts.

But first, I think I should talk about memes.

On social media, we often see an image with a statement on it. This statement usually is in big letters, as if big letters are enough to prove a point on their own. But in the case of internet memes, the big letters are really all they have going for them because there's no context or source for the information itself. As an example, as our family was discussing current events, one of my kids told me that the Queen of England said she'd take back America anytime. Her sister immediately shot back, "The Queen didn't really say that, you just saw it next to her picture on Pinterest!"

The sticky thing about information spread a'la meme is that sometimes, the fact itself is right, or the quote is real. In the book Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, Media Philosopher (yes, that's a real gig) Jacques Ellul pointed out that people "believe facts in themselves provide evidence and proof."

Now if you just raised your eyebrows because, well, of course, facts provide evidence and proof, and why I would raise this as an issue, let me elaborate a bit. Yes, facts are important, but a fact in and of itself rarely stands alone to the point where it can be the star of its own show. And that's where the internet causes problems when it comes to how we see our facts in relationship to the wider world.

As an example, I'm going to pick on a meme that circulated widely last spring, only to be soundly debunked over time. It's a downer topic, but it illustrates the point really well.

You may have seen something like this going around Ye Ole Internet when all this COVID stuff started to drop.

It was usually placed in the context of "Why all this hype around COVID? More people die of the flu and lots of other things and we don't freeze the world for that!" Well, I'm writing this post on August 31, 2020, and today the John Hopkins University COVID dashboard states that there have been 848,030 COVID related deaths worldwide and we still have four months of the year to go. To compare, the UNAIDS website says that 690,000 people died of HIV/AIDS in 2019. The World Health Organization says that roughly 400,000 people died of malaria each year in 2017 and 2018.

So clearly, if this list was meme'd about again, in August, COVID deaths in comparison to these causes would have been much more sobering. If you'd like a more detailed explanation of how the numbers were spun in that meme, you can read an article from Verify here.

That meme had a "fact" - the COVID-19 deaths to date in March. But it overlooked a lot of other issues with COVID-19. First, all those other causes of death are familiar to us and we have fairly solid statistics on the death rates that allow us to measure future trends. Rather than comparing apples to apples when it comes to disease statistics, it's an entire fruit basket with some vegetables and maybe a cat thrown in. From the perspective of data, it doesn't make any sense to put these causes next to each other.

Second, COVID-19 is a virus that spreads exponentially at a rate that is still unpredictable. HIV and the flu are contagious viruses, but we generally understand how they work and the rate of spread and can anticipate the effect of the outbreak (the simple fact that we have data from past outbreaks puts them in a different league than COVID). The other issues aren't contagious causes of death. Traffic accidents, for example, happen at a steady-ish rate in certain areas; if someone gets hit by a car, he's not going to run out and hit four other people with cars, who will proceed to each run over a few more people with cars and so on. If COVID-19 rates remained fairly steady like those other causes and that meme was presenting the fact accurately, then we could expect that 22,000 would die every four months, which would put the worldwide 2020 death rate for the entire year at 66,000. We blew that number out of the water months ago.

I use this example because it's easy to break down and it's been so clearly proven to be misrepresenting "facts." Using a single fact, or a small group of facts, to try and definitively prove a point, happens online all the time and often it's not as easy to get to the bottom of what the "fact" is really trying to say. When you see a claim on a meme, here's some helpful questions to ask as you consider the information:

Is the fact even a fact?

The first problem with meme-facts is that they rarely cite the original source. Sure, the number could be legit, but it could also be taken out of context, outdated, miscalculated, or just plain made up. When I looked into the death statistics meme I posted above, I quickly learned that no one is keeping track of a worldwide real-time 2020 traffic fatality or malaria cases the same way they're tracking COVID; those stats are collected over time and then published at the end of the year. I found some real-time data on the flu, but I could tell I was not the target audience because the webpage didn't take the time to dumb down the statistics for someone who isn't accustomed to tracking diseases (and that was just for America anyway, not worldwide). So it appears that maybe the meme-maker (whomever that may be) collected a hodgepodge of annual stats in past years from those causes of death and divided by 3 to estimate the first four months of the year? However, that is just my best guess, because the meme doesn't tell me where to go to verify the information.

Sometimes, the missing information is the most important thing to know.

By nature, memes don't offer a lot of space to present the argument. In the case of our example, as we already discussed above, the meme fails to mention that COVID-19 grows exponentially, not steadily. (Here's a great video to explain how this works, and unfortunately, what we saw play out in some areas of our world over the past few months). Often, we see that meme with some bold claim, only to learn that there was a pretty major "oh yeah and about that..." lurking right around the corner.

Legit research is based on looking for reliable trends, not planting on a single fact.

The word "prove" means something different in the scientific world than it does on The Internet. When The Internet (no, the internet isn't a person, but I'll capitalize just for fun) gets on a kick and presents The Fact to prove The Point, it seems happily oblivious to the fact that in the real world of research, it's so much more important to collect lots of facts, as data, and use them to look for patterns. This was the fact on March 25, 2020. What's the fact on April 25, 2020? August 25, 2020? Did the numbers go up or down? What patterns did we see once we took all these facts and put them together? What might it be on October 25, 2020?

When we get enough facts to where we start to see patterns, that's when the scientific method comes into play. Some patterns are really easy to see. If someone gets hit by a car and is gushing blood out of her leg, the EMT will know that there's some tried and true methods to stop the bleeding, like direct pressure, elevation, or even a tourniquet. Throughout human history, once determining that blood ought, generally, remain inside the body, people have tried many different things to stop profuse bleeding. We've discovered some techniques that consistently work well in emergencies so they've entered standard medical practice.

When it comes to things that memes like to tackle with "facts," like viruses, crime statistics, economics, education, and all those ones that involve human bodies and brains messing about, the real patterns may be hard to see and take awhile to figure out. In all this, we can safely say that complicated trends, like how a virus spreads, will not be established through a handful of statistics or a single statement that fits in a box on your social media screen. There may be a summary of data from a legit source put in a neat graphic, but if that is the case, the information should be cited and you should be able to take a trip straight to their source material without an internet scavenger hunt.

Don't let people take advantage of what you don't know you don't know.

For my final point, all too often these fact-ish memes are made because someone gets on a high horse and decides they're going to go out and find information to back up their personal opinion. On the internet, this is "super easy, barely an inconvenience" (and that is give-away our family has been watching way too many Pitch Meetings with Ryan George lately). Anyone can Google statistics and dig for the ones that "aha!" their point, slap it into a meme, and then share publicly on social media. Just for fun, related to the conversation I had with my girls the other day, I made this just now:

This took me about 10 minutes. First, I swiped a picture of Queen Elizabeth off Google. Second, I googled "how many Americans have immigrated to Canada" and got a Forbes article noting a recent spike of immigration to our neighbors up north. Finally, I dropped it into Canva and typed in the first thing that came to mind.

Now what did I leave out? Well, first of all, that statistic is not about Americans fleeing to Canada, although the "since Trump..." and the quote imply it. It's part of Canada's overall immigration statistics, including how many people came into Canada from all the other countries. Second, I fudged the number a bit around the "Trump" line, because Trump was elected in 2016, and the 26% increase was 2015 to 2019 and that's all I can really say about it, because I made a point not to finish reading the article, just to drive home my point about the ease of displaying ignorance on a subject through meme-making. (And I exaggerated the relationship between Canada and England by a bit, too, Canada being an independent nation since 1982 and all...) (And yes, the article does say 26% and I put 27% in the article, a typo I didn't bother to correct).

Oh, for those who immediately didn't get a song stuck in their head when they saw that picture, "You'll be back" wasn't the said by the current queen, but a quote contrived by playwright Lin Manuel Miranda for King George III's character in the musical Hamilton, where the Mad King sings a "break-up song" to America during the Revolutionary War.

"You'll be back, you will see. You'll remember you belong to me. You'll be back, time will tell, and you'll remember that I served you well. Oceans rise, empires fall, but we've seen each other through it all. And when push, comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love."

In Conclusion

Memes often "make sense" and "seem right," but all too often they're just trash on the dumpster fire of Internet information. Instead of sharing them, it might be better just to skip over, don't share, and seek out information that is...well, at least in written paragraphs. In future posts, I'm going to talk more about how to identify more reliable sources. But for now, if we take a broad look at trends in how information spreads on the internet, memes are notoriously unreliable and often add more confusion to complex issues that need to be addressed with many, many, many facts.