I’ve been thinking a lot about bullshit recently, and I’ve started to notice a bit of a pattern in the way bullshit gets relayed on social media. These days, it seems like bullshit is turning in to a multi-step process that goes a little something like this: someone posts/publishes something with lots of nuances and caveats. Someone else translates that thing for more popular consumption, and loses quite a bit of the nuance. This happens with every share until finally the finished product is almost completely unrecognizable. Finally the story encounters someone who doesn’t agree with it, who then points out there should be more caveats. The sharer/popularizers promptly point at the original creator, and the creator throws their hands up and says “but I clarified those points in the original!!!!”. In other words:
The Bullshit Two-Step: A dance in which a story or research with nuanced points and specific parameters is shared via social media. With each share some of the nuance or specificity is eroded, finally resulting in a story that is almost total bullshit but that no one individually feels responsible for.
Think of this as the science social media equivalent of the game of telephone.
This is a particularly challenging problem for people who care about truth and accuracy, because so often the erosion happens one word at a time. Here’s an example of this happening with a Census Bureau statistic I highlighted a few years ago. Steps 1 and 2 are where the statistic started, step 4 is how it ended up in the press:
- The Census Bureau reports that half of all custodial (single) parents have court ordered child support.
- The Census Bureau also states (when talking about just the half mentioned in #1) that “In 2009, 41.2 percent of custodial parents received the full amount of child support owed them, down from 46.8 percent in 2007, according to a report released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. The proportion of these parents who were owed child support payments and who received any amount at all — either full or partial — declined from 76.3 percent to 70.8 percent over the period.“
- That got published in the New York Times as “In 2009, the latest year for which data are available, only about 41 percent of custodial parents (predominantly women) received the child support they were owed. Some biological dads were deadbeats. ” No mention that this only covered half of custodial parents.
- This ended up in Slate (citing the Times) as “…. in a substantial number of cases, the men just quit their families. That’s why only 41 percent of custodial parents receive child support.” The “full amount” part got lost, along with all those with no court mandate who may or may not be getting money.
As you can see, very little changed between each piece, but a lot changed by the end. We went from “Half of all custodial parents receive court ordered child support. Of that half, only 41% have received the full amount this year.” to “only 41% of custodial parents receive child support at all”. We didn’t get there all at once, but we got there. No one’s fully responsible, but no one’s innocent either. It’s the bullshit two-step.
I doubt there’s any one real source for this….sometimes I think these are legitimate errors in interpretation, sometimes people were just reading quickly and missed the caveat, sometimes people are just being sloppy. Regardless, I think it’s interesting to track the pathway and see how easy it is to lose meaning one or two words at a time. It’s also a good case for only citing primary sources for statistics, as it makes it harder to carry over someone else’s error.