"Factlets"

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I don't think I've ever seen writing with a greater factoid density than these two paragraphs from the start of George Scialabba's essay "How Bad Is It?", The New Inquiry 5/26/2012:

Pretty bad. Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years. Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.

Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.

As is usual in such recitals, there are no references. And also as usual, it's natural to wonder whether any of the "factlets" are true.

At least, it ought to be natural. The problem is that when someone is channeling a Deep Meme (here O tempora O mores),  supporting factlets become Too Good To Check. Confirmation Bias rules.

I'm not going to try to fact-check Mr. Scialabba this morning, but when I've looked for the facts behind factlets of this kind, the claims have usually turned out to be somewhere between misleading and totally bogus. For a few examples, see "Counting Freedoms, Simpsons, and Percentages", 3/1/2006; "Freedom of Speech: More Famous than Bart Simpson", 3/3/2006; "Sex-linked Lexical Budgets", 8/6/2006; "Don't know much about history psychometrics", 6/22/2011.

Update — Since there has been some discussion in the comments about the interpretation of television-watching time, I thought I'd take a look at the numbers.

Scialabba's factoid: "According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television."

Fact: The 2010 American Time Use Survey, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reports that the average amount of time spent watching television — "for persons who engaged in the activity" —  was 2.73 hours/day.  The percentage of the sample who did any TV watching during the period of the survey was 79.4%, meaning that 20.6% of the group watched no TV at all during the sampled period. This means that the overall average was .794*2.73 = 2.17 hours, or two hours ten minutes. This is a bit more than half of the "four hours" cited in Scialabba's factoid.

(The numbers for TV-watching time over the past decade's surveys have not changed very much.)

Update #2 — Prompted by a comment, I should add the following…

Scialabba's factoid: "Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year."

Fact: According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, "Some 78% of those ages 16 and older say they read a book in the past 12 months. Those readers report they have read an average (or mean number) of 17 books in the past year and 8 books as a median (midpoint) number.  Those who read e-books report they have read more books in all formats. They reported an average of 24 books in the previous 12 months and had a median of 13 books. Those who do not read e-books say they averaged 15 books in the previous year and the median was 6 books." [Based on a survey of 2,986 Americans ages 16 and older, conducted on November 16-December 21, 2011]

As these two random checks illustrate, we can update Mencken: "No one ever went broke overestimating the willingness of the American public to believe made-up statistics, especially about how stupid their fellow Americans allegedly are".

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56 Comments »

  1. mike said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    The article does go on to say this: 'That is indeed what Morris Berman concludes in his three-volume survey of America’s decline: The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America (2006), and Why America Failed (2011), from which much of the preceding information is taken." Not exactly a source cite, but at least he puts off responsibility for the numbers (well, "much of" them) to a book he seems to be reading.

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 9:14 am

    Four hours watching TV looks plausible. Gleick's "Faster" (at the end of last century) quotes some sources about the amount of TV watched in the US growing over time, even as respondents reported unwillingness to watch any more TV the amount they actually watched (monitored through diaries IIRC) continued to rise. Unfortunately I no longer have that book to report his sources or the specific numbers he gives.

    I would guess it's fallen since then because the Internet offers a variety of distractions more compelling than television and there are only so many hours in the day.

    It strikes me that more fundamental than getting the raw figures wrong is the fact that a reasonable person should count some large portion of those four hours under "viewing art". Refusing to do so (or perhaps not even considering the possibility) says a lot more about the agenda of the person quoting these figures than any slip with particular figures.

  3. The Ridger said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 9:38 am

    Precisely. If I watch The Tempest or Carmen on television, is that attending a play or concert, or is that watching television?

    Plus, except for the watching television, how does this differ from a hundred years ago? What percentage of Americans in 1912 or 1812 really read books and attended plays and concerts? Literacy rates may have been high (for citizens, at least) but how many of them sat around reading – and how of of THOSE would have gotten their entertainment from the tv instead of listening to someone read a serialized Dickens or Cooper novel had it been available to them?

  4. Ellen K. said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 9:59 am

    Seems to me not counting any portion of TV watching as viewing art is likely a simply matter of word meaning and has nothing to do with their agenda. Paintings and scultures, the kind of stuff found in an art museum, what do we call it? Art. The word is often used in a narrow way that doesn't include music, plays, or anything other than sculpture and pictures on paper (or canvas or other flat surface). No reason to take the narrow meaning of "art" as evidence of an agenda. Not to say there isn't an agenda, just to say that that particular usage isn't evidence of it.

  5. Peter said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    Even if these factlets all originated in facts, many are patently past their use-by dates. I’d be quite shocked if 60% of Americans can still name the Three Stooges.

  6. Gene Callahan said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    Citing a 70% belief in angels as a sign of America's decline is really awful history. Whatever one thinks of the existence of angels, it is obvious that far more than 70% would have believed in them in the "good old days."

  7. Adrian said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    Attempting to include part of watching TV in the category of going to galleries/plays/concerts is a bit like counting one's intake of candies as part of one's diet of fruit and veg.

  8. MattF said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    High factoid density is cause for suspicion, but careless use of averages is at the top of the list of statistical felonies, IMO. It's true that the average value of a series of measurements is the best unbiased estimate of the unknown quantity you're trying to measure, but that doesn't mean that the average is the best single descriptor of an otherwise undescribed distribution.

  9. efahl said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    The phrase "watching TV" is largely symbolic and has no real connection to the literal interpretation. It carries a strong connotation of frittering away your life, and hence is clearly here to set the agenda. Describing my own habits, I could easily say that I spend 10 hours per day "staring at electronically generated images" (hey! I'm looking at one right now!) and you'd derive just as much information as if presented with a flip "watching TV" factoid, but probably without the implied negativity.

  10. CC said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    @Adrian: I think there are many who would dispute that. Anyone who has any familiarity with film analysis and the like knows that things like movies and TV shows exhibit a range of techniques that are manipulated and used in a way not unlike that those of the literary world, and while certainly some reality TV shows for example might not be very "arty" in this way, other shows can be very sophisticated, having a lot of in-depth character and plot development, intricate use of camera manipulation and angles, powerful symbol use and manipulation, etc.

  11. John said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    @Peter: There was a 2012 remake of The Three Stooges. It could well be that 60% of those under ten know their names.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0383010/

  12. Boudica said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    I just asked my 17-year old son (who just finished his junior year of HS which included US History), and he could name the three branches of govt but had no idea of the Three Stooges' names.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    Just to show that a certain old-style command of factual knowledge can be melded with How Kids Today Talk, I give you what my 5th-grade daughter said yesterday: "No, the Cold War. My bad." (She had misattributed the development of the Blackbird spy plane — which she'd learned about on a recent school field trip — to WW2, and was correcting her error.)

  14. M Williamson said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    As a 22 year old I really doubt that most people my age and younger know the names of all the Three Stooges.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government.

    That one stuck out to me because of having read those stats recently in another article. Except, here, they combine two different stats into one. The actual stat reported in other articles is that 42% can name the three branches of the U.S. government, with that stat compared to the Three Stooges stat, but still clearly separate. (I'm assuming these are references to the same study.)

    Perhaps the writer of this article meant simply that less than 60% of those surveyed high school students can name the branches of government, but that's not the most natural meaning of that wording, it seems to me, and I'm not sure I'd've gotten that reading without having seen the statistic elsewhere.

  16. Rubrick said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    I would be quite surprised if at any time 60% of Americans could name all five of the Three Stooges.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

    That would be all six of the Three Stooges. (Just been reading up on them.)

  18. Ethan said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    I kind of like the idea that 50% of respondents believe UFOs have landed, but an additional 20% believe the government is covering it up even though it didn't happen.

  19. Joyce Melton said,

    June 3, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

    There were six stooges if you count all of and only those billed as part of the act in the credits of movies that starred the real Moe Howard and Larry Fine. There were as many as ten, maybe more, if you use looser definitions.

    How many Marx Bros were there? Four; or five if you count Gummo, six if you count Manfred, seven if you include Karl.

  20. maidhc said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 1:42 am

    If the rest of America is like my in-laws, the TV may been on for 4 hours a day, but they spend more time talking than watching the shows.

  21. Peter Erwin said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 5:16 am

    @ mike –
    Yes, the essay in question is a book review (or an essay about a trilogy of O tempora, O mores books, but Scialabba wholeheartedly approves of Berman's books and makes no attempt to suggest that the quoted statistics are anything other than God's Honest Truth.

  22. Nathan said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 5:37 am

    "Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II"

    Would it be correct also to say who instead of "whom"?

  23. Gunnar H said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    The Dept. of Labor Time-Use numbers may be the best available data on American TV viewing, but the four-hours-per-day statistic is also widely cited, including in the academic literature. It comes from Nielsen Media Research; their 2011 numbers show 4:17 of live TV viewing/day. So this particular factlet comes from a somewhat credible source.

    (http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/State-of-the-Media-2011-TV-Upfronts.pdf)

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    @Gene Callahan: To be fair, Scialabba doesn't cite belief in angels in evidence that things are getting worse. Both the original book and his review seem to argue that things in America have always been bad and are getting worse.

    Also, see Supernaturalism in Christianity for survey evidence suggesting that belief in angels in America grew between 1979 and 1997. This page provides some more recent Gallup numbers to compare with the 1979 Gallup poll in the previous reference. "Seventy percent" seems to be a little low.

  25. Andy Averill said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    It's manifestly absurd to say that only 6% of Americans read even one book a year — a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center found the actual number is 72%, and that's printed books. 11% listened to an audiobook and 21% read an e-book. (I don't know what the intersection of these sets looks like.)

    [(myl) The study is here. A relevant quotation:

    Some 78% of those ages 16 and older say they read a book in the past 12 months. Those readers report they have read an average (or mean number) of 17 books in the past year and 8 books as a median (midpoint) number.

    Those who read e-books report they have read more books in all formats. They reported an average of 24 books in the previous 12 months and had a median of 13 books. Those who do not read e-books say they averaged 15 books in the previous year and the median was 6 books.

    As Mencken didn't say: "No one ever went broke underestimating the willingness of the American public to believe made-up statistics, especially about how stupid their fellow Americans allegedly are".]

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    As the Stooges example indicates, for a lot of these the answer (even if the thing isn't entirely bogus) will depend a lot on how precise/complete an answer is counted as correct. For example, for the World-War-II-adversaries question how many Axis members/affiliates are required for full credit? I myself would not have remembered that the U.S. was at least arguably in a formal state of war with Slovakia and Croatia had I not poked around wikipedia. (And the U.S. was apparently never formally at war with Finland but our British and Soviet allies, were, so . . .)

    [(myl) Tricky lists and careful selection of cut-points are often crucial to these factoids, as documented in the case of the "five freedoms" vs. the five Simpsons. Those are the high-quality ones; the lower-quality ones are completely invented.]

  27. Mark F. said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    If he were presenting this list as an example of people's readiness to believe and repeat unsourced factoids, and by extension on the lack of intellectual rigor in public discourse, then the point he would be making is pretty similar to the point he is trying to make with his list taken at face value.

    I actually got a good way through the list before figuring out that wasn't what he was doing.

  28. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    I would like to see a breakdown of hours of TV watched vs. age. I suspect that people currently over 50 watch much more TV than people between, say, 15 and 50, though that is based purely on personal anecdotal observation.

  29. Amanda said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

    I'm really curious what method authors like Stephen king and JK Rowling are using to get all rich and famous from best selling books if 94% of the population doesn't read a single book. Are people buying their books to use as door stops? Seems like a waste of money if you ask me.

  30. Peter Erwin said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

    Matt –
    I would like to see a breakdown of hours of TV watched vs. age.

    You can find that in one of the other tables in the BLS study Mark linked to, here. (I'm not sure whether one could say that people over 50 watch much more TV, but they do definitely watch more, especially the over-75s.)

  31. wally said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    I would like to point out that, at least on the basis of the evidence presented so far, the readers of this blog know more about the 3 Stooges than about the branches of government.

  32. Gene Callahan said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: "To be fair, Scialabba doesn't cite belief in angels in evidence that things are getting worse."

    Having personally corresponded with him on this, I can assure you he did not make the objection to my remark that you made, meaning, he *was* citing these statistics as evidence things are getting worse.

    "belief in angels in America grew between 1979 and 1997."

    Yes, I was comparing, say, the time of the founding with today.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    @Amanda: Six percent of the American population is about 18 million. You could get quite rich if just a tenth of those people bought your books, and the media might think it worthwhile to make you famous, especially if your books were being made into popular movies.

    The statistics from Pew are very interesting, but I notice they didn't define "book" or ask what kinds of books respondents read. Do comic books count? Does reading Goodnight, Moon to your child at bedtime count?

    They did include reading only part of a book. ("During the past 12 months, about how many BOOKS did you read either all or part of the way through?")

    Of course, regardless of such quibbles, the 6% number looks wrong.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    Speaking of quibbles, the correct title seems to be Goodnight Moon, with no comma.

  35. Jon Weinberg said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    As so often happens, here's a game of telephone going on with these factlets. Berman mentions an oft-cited survey in which high school students in the late 1980s had difficulty answering which *half*-century the Civil War was fought in. Scialabba moves the date of the survey, and drops the "half". (The survey was itself a little odd: it asked "When was the Civil War fought?", with the correct multiple-choice answer being "1850-1900". I hadn't thought the war went on for that long, though.)

  36. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    The business about believing in angels bothers me because I wonder if people were responding to a question without nuanced answers.

    I suspect that if a survey was done with multiple choice answers, such as these below, the percentages about people "believing" in angels would go down.

    A. I believe in angels and I have seen proof of their existence.
    B. I believe in angels and I believe they guard us, and I don't need proof to believe.
    C. I believe angels could exist, so I believe in them.
    D. I believe in angels because I want to believe in them, even though I have no proof.
    E. I believe angels could exist, but I don't know if they do.
    F. I believe angels might exist, but I doubt they do.
    G. I don't believe angels exist, but I think believing in angels is harmless.
    H. I don't believe angels exist.
    I. I don't believe in angels, and I don't think other people should either.
    J. Angels are bunk.

    As always, what I really want to see are the questions that are asked. Every survey I've taken over the phone has offered forced choices that don't capture the nuances of my opinion.

    Statistics on tv watching are similar — they don't relate the topic being watched to the amount of watching, and there are so many choices on tv the "vast wasteland" cliche is inaccurate. Even making assumptions about what retired people watch is a problem. One of my relatives, in her 80s, reads a lot and watches television. She watched every Giants football game last season, but she never watched soap operas and still doesn't. My late husband watched opera, sports, news, and police shows (Hill Street Blues to CSI) on television, and he watched dvds of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges with great glee. I binge on HGTV every once in a while, then go back to ignoring anything on tv.

    Family members and friends who gather at my house park themselves in front of the tv for episodes of Big Bang Theory. (They also know about the branches of government.) I don't think any of the viewers I know are "typical" tv watchers in the way "typical" tv watchers are described, and decried, in culture wars critiques.

  37. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    80%+ of Americans will self-identify to a pollster as adherents of religions that formally espouse belief in angels, so who knows if 70% is high or low given that context (although of course that self-identification can capture a sense of ancestral/cultural affiliation without much substantive doctrinal content)? I assume the more liberal fringes of Protestantism and Reform Judaism might not talk about the existence of angels much and/or might if pressed try to dodge by talking about how scripture has a deep metaphorical/poetic meaning beyond mere facticity, but I don't think they're out there affirmatively taking the angels-are-bunk position.

    There's at least one recent poll finding that 75% of American adults believed in the historicity of the virgin birth of Jesus, and presumably the existence of a class of entities including Gabriel is not likely to be the most serious sticking point for skeptics.

  38. Bill Steele said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    I'm inclined to question Nielsen figures on TV=-watching time. IF a household has a Nielsen meter on the TV set it records the fact that the set is turned on, and to what channel. It doesn't know if there are human beings in the room watching. (I hear they're working on that.) During sweeps months a larger sample is given diaries to keep, and that works a lot like the meter: If I turn on the Six O'Clock News, I write in the diary "6-6:30, Six O'Clock News" even if I spent half that time in the kitchen and the rest sort of watching the news while reading my mail and paying bills. Nielsen families also may have agendas,filling in shows they like even when they don't watch them.

    Of course if you watch Jaywalking you might believe everything in the article.

  39. Amanda said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

    @Jerry Remember, this is 6% reading even one book a year. So lets say we have 18 million people buying one book a year. There are 10 books on the top best sellers book for 2012. I'd guess it takes maybe 100000 books sold to make a book qualify as a best seller. So 100000 buy each of these 10 books, that 1000000 books sold in the month of March. These lists exist every month. that's 12 million books right there. And that doesn't include the entire best sellers list, just the top 10 for one month without any big releases. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 8.3 million copies its first day (see here). That's far more than 18 million people reading a book a year.

    [(myl) But the facts, as noted in an earlier comment, appear to be that "Some 78% of those ages 16 and older say they read a book in the past 12 months. Those readers report they have read an average (or mean number) of 17 books in the past year and 8 books as a median (midpoint) number."

    The 6% factoid, like (presumably) the rest of Scialabba's factoids, is apparently nonsense -- in this case off by a factor of more than 10. Someone with more patience than me might try to trace this particular piece of nonsense to its root.]

  40. Ellen K. said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

    Wall: I would like to point out that, at least on the basis of the evidence presented so far, the readers of this blog know more about the 3 Stooges than about the branches of government.

    Not a fair assessment, in my opinion. After all, the Three Stooges discussion started from the observation that naming all of them meaning naming more than three. Whereas, naming the three branches of the government means naming three things. No parallel observation to be made. So, while we've certainly demonstrated more knowledge of the Stooges, that can't be taken as any sort of evidence that we know more about the Stooges than the branches of government.

  41. Andy Averill said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

    @Jerry Friedman,

    The Harris poll, this time, provides some answers about exactly what Americans are reading:

    Among those who say they read at least one book in an average year, three-quarters say they read both fiction (76%) and non-fiction (76%) but certain types of books rise to the top in both categories. Among fiction categories, almost half of readers say they read mystery, thriller and crime books (47%), while one-quarter read science fiction (25%), literature (23%) and romance (23%). One in ten read graphic novels (10%) while 8% read "chick-lit" and 5% read Westerns. Among non-fiction categories, almost three in ten readers say they read biographies (29%) while one-quarter read history (27%) and religious and spirituality books (24%). Just under one in five readers (18%) read self-help books, while 13% read true crime, 12% read current affairs, 11% read political books and 10% read business books.

  42. Andy Averill said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 10:42 pm

    Also, the National Endowment for the Arts found that in 2002, 57% of Americans over 18 read at least one book not required for work or school, down from 61% in 1992. Less than the Pew survey, but still ten times as much as Scialabba's figure.

  43. Joe said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 1:49 am

    The 6% figure seems to come from Berman's The Twilight of American Culture. (I say seems because I don't have access to Berman's book and only found the reference through citations from others. Most references are to page 36 of the book). Berman appears to claim that that number includes Harlequin romances and self-help books.

    [(myl) Scialabba explains:

    ... America is a failure.

    That is indeed what Morris Berman concludes in his three-volume survey of America’s decline: The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America (2006), and Why America Failed (2011), from which much of the preceding information is taken. Berman is a cultural and intellectual historian, not a social scientist, so his portrait of American civilization, or barbarism, is anecdotal and atmospheric as well as statistical.

    ]

    I have no idea where Berman gets his figures from.

    [(myl) I would like to be wrong, but it seems that by saying "his portrait ... is anecdotal and atmospheric", Scialabba is telling us that Berman pulls these numbers out of the air. Or, as the vulgar saying goes, out of his ass.

    This is no special shame, I'm sorry to say. Citing invented numbers in support of amiable hypotheses appears to be a widespread practice among public intellectuals, including those who present a scientific veneer. 94% of such statistics turn out to be misleading or totally bogus :-) ]

  44. Jon Weinberg said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 5:42 am

    On the page where Berman pulls out the 6% figure (and explains further that "sixty percent of the adult population has never read a book of any kind"), he tells an (implausible) story and cites it to the Car Talk radio show — while the story could be false, he says, he's using it to illustrate America's decline because it might be true.

  45. Andy Averill said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 6:57 am

    @Joe, Berman's book says "Roughly 60 percent of the adult population has never read a book of any kind, and only 6 percent reads as much as one book a year, where book is defined to include Harlequin romances and self-help manuals."

    The notes for Berman's book don't give specific citations for individual factoids, but from the general notes it seems possible that the 6% figure came from Paul Fussell's book, BAD, or the Dumbing of America (1991). No preview of this book is available on Amazon or Google, so I haven't been able to trace it back any further.

  46. Andy Averill said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 7:00 am

    … and the citation to Fussell's book says, p. 190-194, if anybody has that book sitting around.

  47. Dan Hemmens said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 8:56 am

    Not on the list in the original article, but my favourite factlet has always been "the average US citizen receives more in government benefits than they pay in taxes".

  48. Acilius said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    @Barbara Phillips Long 4 June 3:02PM: I agree. I'd go further, and say that there are far more than ten possible interpretations to "Yes, I believe in angels." As J. W. Brewer (4 June, 3:36 PM; you know it would be handy if comments were numbered) points out, most Americans declare themselves to be adherents of religions that include belief in angels among their doctrines. So, they might recite creeds or perform other prescribed utterances that include an avowal of belief in angels during a religious service, and if asked might say they believe in them, and might never think about them at any other time. That sort of "belief" tells you very little about its believer.

    Also, there are a few intellectuals here and there who believe in angels in some highly abstract way. I'm sure these would represent a tiny percentage of whatever number of Americans "believe in angels," still it would be misleading for Mr Scialabba to use them as grist for his intended narrative of spreading ignorance. So as recently as the 1980s, Mortimer Adler's The Angels and Us introduced Thomas Aquinas' angelology to a broad audience, and of course the Roman Catholic Church gives institutional support to Thomism.

    Moreover, I can't resist recommending Massimo Cacciari's The Necessary Angel. While it would be a rare survey that would include even one respondent who had read that book, it would be an even rarer reader of it who could say with confidence that s/he had discarded all the beliefs and habits of mind that Professor Cacciari there shows to be dependent on the assumption that angels exist. That Mr Scialabba can put widespread belief in angels first on his list of signs of mass stupidity is, at a minimum, proof positive that he hasn't engaged with that particular book. I don't know if it proves anything else about him, though Professor Cacciari's argument does suggest several reasons why various people are uncomfortable with the topic of angels.

  49. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    @Gene Callahan: I didn't realize your "good old days" were the 18th century, not sometime in the 20th. And whether or not Scialabba thinks the current belief in angels in America is a sign of decline, he didn't say so in the passage quoted.

    @Amanda: Did you think I was defending the 6% figure? I wasn't. In fact I said it "looks wrong". I was pointing out that extrapolating from the wealth and fame of some authors isn't a valid argument against it. Neither are your estimates based on best-seller numbers, since none of them got above 18 million, though they're suggestive. The valid argument, as MYL said, is the survey data that he and Andy Averill have mentioned.

    @Andy Averill: Thanks for the Harris data, which answers my question.

    I find it interesting that Harris found that 24% of readers say they read religious or spiritual books, while in a Pew survey, 37% of all adults say they read holy scripture at least once a week, not counting religious services. Maybe some people don't count reading a passage or a few passages every week as "reading a book"? (I wouldn't argue with them.)

    @MYL: The 6% factoid, like (presumably) the rest of Scialabba's factoids, is apparently nonsense

    Actually, the angels number seems low, if anything, and the UFO number is probably in the ballpark. In a story dated June 15, 1997,

    a new CNN/Time poll released Sunday shows that 80 percent of Americans think the government is hiding knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life forms.

    While nearly three-quarters of the 1,024 adults questioned for the poll said they had never seen or known anyone who saw a UFO, 54 percent believe intelligent life exists outside Earth.

    Sixty-four percent of the respondents said that aliens have contacted humans, half said they've abducted humans, and 37 percent said they have contacted the U.S. government.

    The inconsistencies show either that the poll can't be taken seriously or that things really are bad for 26% of Americans. For a much lower number, this AP story reports 34% believing in UFOs. But I don't think Scialabba's 50% is nonsense.

  50. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    Sorry about the missing tag.

  51. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    @Peter Erwin: Hmm… from that breakdown it appears that the age variation isn't enormously larger than one would expect just from the variation in total leisure time. That's actually surprising to me.

  52. Scott Schulz said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    "94% of such statistics turn out to be misleading or totally bogus :-) "

    As Todd Snider sings,

    "They say 3 percent of the people use 5 to 6 percent of their brain
    97 percent use 3 percent and the rest goes down the drain
    I'll never know which one I am but I'll bet you my last dime
    99 percent think they're the 3 percent 100 percent of the time

    64 percent of all the world's statistics are made up right there on the spot
    82.4 percent of people believe 'em whether they're accurate statistics or not
    I don't know what you believe but I do know there's no doubt
    I need another double shot of something 90 proof
    I got too much to think about"

    -Statistician Blues

  53. Peter Erwin said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    And whether or not Scialabba thinks the current belief in angels in America is a sign of decline, he didn't say so in the passage quoted.

    Sure he does. The title of his review is "How Bad Is It?", and he answers that in the very first line: "Pretty bad. Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years." The passage Mark quoted is followed by "Intellectual distinction isn’t everything, it’s true. But things are amiss in other areas as well: sociability and trust, for example…."

    You're technically correct in that Scialabba doesn't explicitly say believing in angels is bad when he mentions it. But then he doesn't explicitly say that any of the other supposed statistics (not reading books, failing to know about WW2 or the Cold War, knowing the Trhee Stooges but not the three branches of government, etc.) are bad, either. It's all of a piece, and all meant to be indicators of decline, according to Scialabba (and Berman).

  54. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 5, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

    Certainly he sees such widespread belief in angels as a sign that things are bad. He doesn't say in the excerpt that he sees that as a sign that things have been getting worse for the past two-hundred-some years, which is the point Gene Callahan rebutted. (Now Gene says he inferred from his correspondence with Scialabba that Scialabba does see 70+% belief in angels as a sign of decline, not just as a sign that things are amiss.)

  55. Friday Links (5-Oct-12) | a Nadder! said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 12:20 am

    [...] Log takes a look at the unsourced factlets that are often used when trying to show how the youngsters aren't literate anymore, nobody [...]

  56. The Internet and KidsTheseDays-ism | Fail Blue Dot said,

    August 17, 2013 @ 2:24 am

    [...] are simply made up, littered by unreferenced factlets that fall apart on closer examination. This LanguageLog post provides an example paragraph: "Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War [...]

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