How ‘Information’ is made out of Thin Air

Have you heard that a weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England?

If so, did you also know that this statement probably has no basis in fact?

I’ve come across the tidbit more than once over the last couple of months, in conversations and online.  It struck me as being in the same general vein as another popular myth: that we only use 10% of our brains, so I did a little digging.  Here’s what I found:

  • This viral YouTube video contains the snippet (at 3:20) and may be the key source of its popularity at the moment.  No sources are cited for any of the information presented.  Not even in fine print.   The video is one of a number of versions of this particular montage of ‘facts’ which, together, have been seen over 10 million times.
  • The snippet has popped up in a number of places around the web, some more reputable than others.  It also appears in numerous books.  Like the YouTube vid, most don’t make any effort to verify the assertion.  The context also changes from repeat to repeat; sometimes it is the Sunday edition and 19th century citizens, sometimes it is exposure to information in a day and ‘our ancestors’.  So, that lesson you learnt playing Chinese whispers as a kid still holds; people are prone to error when retelling a story.  It’s worth being wary of this when retelling something yourself or hearing a startling ‘truth’ from someone else.
  • Where sources are cited, they generally lead to a statement made by Richard Saul Wurman in his 1989 book titled Information Anxiety (page 32).  Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the book, so I can’t see whether he presents any evidence to support the claim.  Thankfully, Geoffrey Nunberg at UC Berkeley managed to find a copy and took a look for himself… apparently the book  “asserts the fact without offering a source or explanation” (p9 of a pdf by Nunberg that in part examines the likely veracity and lack of meaning of the snippet).

So, after making a reasonable effort aimed at finding evidence to support the claim, I’ve come up empty handed.  Others have had the same experience.  My conclusion is that it is probably nothing more than an statement without foundation that has made its way into popular consciousness by virtue of it being superficially plausible and sufficiently repeated without critical thought.  Fascinating stuff.

This particular example is innocuous, but sometimes these ‘facts from thin air’ can make their way into places where they might have more impact on policy or business decisions.  For instance, in Damn Lies and Statistics, Joel Best recounts that a published Journal article he once read contained the statement “Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled”.  Go here if you are interested to see why the statement is so absurd, along with the history of how this ‘mutant statistic’ came to be.

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