Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Art of Misinformation

I like information. I consume an inordinate and in some ways unhealthy amount of news, so I often wind up reading and researching a bit more than initial news reports. I am also a big fan of stat book and maps. As a kid my mother put maps on my wall and I would stare at them for hours. I wore out binding on more than one Rand McNally statistic books of the world. Finding out the populations of countries, percentage of each religion, per capita GNP(the popular measure used at the time), major industries and other interesting facts. These have changed a lot since the Cold War and much of the statistics are now more accurate for the Second World now that we have more open exchange rates. I still check the Census, BEA, CIA and more websites to check information for fun.

I like to fact check information. The internet is full of information, and with this much information there are occasions great inaccuracies. This should not be surprising. I found an example of some sneaky misinformation. But it was not just the misinformation that was surprising, but how much this misinformation spread and how it was continually accredited.

This past week an old friend sent me a link to an interesting map on a website below.
The website says the map reflects the GDP economic equivalent to each state of the Union and compares to a country with a similar GDP. For example Missouri is equal to Poland and Illinois is the equivalent economy size to Mexico. Now this on the surface is highly amusing and I could look at this for hours. At first I scanned across the map and was absorbed by the comparisons. It is highly entertaining to look at. Then I looked close. Arkansas is Pakistan? Pakistan is huge- around 170 million people. France might be the same as Cali. Poland as Missouri- huh, Poland is pretty big. Mexico as Illinois? Wow, Mexico is huge, somewhere around 100 million people. Now I know we are very mighty in the US in terms of economy compared to the rest of the World even with the rapidly growing economies of Asia. I scrolled down on the site and they list off the top economic sized states of the Union with their nation counterparts.

This is what the first seven economies were according to the site:
  1. California, it is often said, would be the world’s sixth- or seventh-largest economy if it was a separate country. Actually, that would be the eighth, according to this map, as France (with a GDP of $2,15 trillion) is #8 on the aforementioned list.
  2. Texas’ economy is significantly smaller, exactly half of California’s, as its GDP compares to that of Canada (#10, $1,08 trillion).
  3. Florida also does well, with its GDP comparable to Asian tiger South Korea’s (#13 at $786 billion).
  4. Illinois – Mexico (GDP #14 at $741 billion)
  5. New Jersey – Russia (GDP #15 at $733 billion)
  6. Ohio – Australia (GDP #16 at $645 billion)
  7. New York – Brazil (GDP #17 at $621 billion)
  8. Pennsylvania – Netherlands (GDP #18 at $613 billion)
And looking at this list more closely, I thought to myself, this has got to be wrong. There is no way the Illinois has a larger economy than NY state. No way that New Jersey has more. I kept going down the list. These numbers didn't add up. I did some checking GNPs on some more reputable websites and found the site riddled with errors in all sorts of ways.

But this is not the part that is disturbing. I am not the only person to have found the errors. I went down on the comments and read a lot of interesting responses. Over 300 responses on this blog. Some are the same as mine pointing out the errors. But vast majority of the comments and linkbacks are positive responses lauding how cool and interesting the website is. These positive comments are right after comments that clearly document the massive errors of the map.

This says about something about society and our relationship with information. People are so eager to be amused/informed that even after being told the information is false, they either disregard the correction, don't care, or don't identify the validity of new correct information. I am certain I have fallen victim to misinformation a time or two. I bet we all have. Healthy skepticism should be encouraged and taught.

It is kind of scary how misinformation is played in our society- and the best example is what has been pulled over the country and the mess we have gotten into over the past six years. Misinformation comes in many forms from the relatively benign like this GNP map comparison to more cutting truths with far greater consequences. Unfortunately this is a part of mankind historically from Holocaust deniers to the supposed truths that society accepted on slavery at one time. It is interesting to see how the little roots of misinformation works and sad how people are pointing to this site as accurate information.

2 Comments:

Blogger dave said...

Great post Steve and great insights.

As you know I am in the business of information and have thought a lot about it.

Here's my feeling: Biologically there is no real difference between us and hunter-gatherer societies. So I think we treat information just as hunter-gatherers treat food.

Information falls into two categories:

1. It's so large and juicy that it is worth spending significant energy to find, hunt and kill it. It's got to be worth hunting.

2. It's low-hanging fruit, easy to gather.

To be successful on the web, you've got to make your information one or the other.

Basically, unless people really really want to know something, then they will simply not check the facts.

Sadly this is true for trusted news sources as much as for individuals. Most facts are swallowed wholesale and few are really checked.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

I'll agree with Dave.

Our society would rather believe obscure or mis-information than check it out.

One example is all the e-mails going around about Microsoft sending you a check for $ 25K if you send this to 50 people, or Apple sending you a new computer if your e-mail address shows up a certain number of times on an e-mail thread, etc.

Or what about Wikepedia...this information can be altered by just about anyone. If you're looking something up...can information that has the propensity to be updated/altered by millions of people really be trusted?

I checkout snopes.com more often than not. I am surprised when occasionally things are true.

So...have I just demonstrated the fact of the prople of the internet and information? Am I saying that snopes.com is the ultimate place for correct information?

Trusted sites, the experts, people with experience...and your own judgement are what make information believable.

And maybe neighbors, relatives, friends and people around you should take time to talk.

Steve...I wanted to say, as this is my first post on your blog..that I like your posts. Very insightful and you can ask a "question" between the lines in a simple paragraph, that one should ponder and reason out.

Bill.

12:53 PM  

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