Incompetent Polling + Confirmation Bias + Lazy Analysis= Fake News

Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a nationally representative online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, reports the Washington Post. The writer then goes on to explain why this “surprising result” occurred. The main thesis: Americans are now so far removed from farm and food production that ignorance is epidemic.

I have no doubt that too many kids aren’t properly informed by the adults in their lives about basic facts of food and agriculture., just as I know that the average American has trouble placing the Civil War and World War I on a timeline, can’t name more than ten Presidents, and thinks JFK was “great.” I also have no doubt that 7% of the American public is dumber than a box of whoopie cushions.  Taking a poll result like this one at face values, however, shows why the news media was so sure Hillary Clinton would win.

Ann Althouse nailed it in a brief post she calls : “There’s nothing dumber than forgetting that other people might have a sense of humor and are screwing with you.”:

“When you’re studying something among people you look upon as commoners, you’d better stop and wonder: Am I the Margaret Mead?”

(If you are unfamiliar with the Mead reference, this will help.)

Both my father and my son got in trouble in school by repeatedly either refusing to answer what they felt were stupid questions, or intentionally answering them incorrectly. My father was regarded as mentally-challenged because of this stubborn (but very characteristic of him) trait, and was made to, as he told it, “sit in the back with the kid who blew spit-bubbles all day and the other kid who kept waving his hands around.”

I even succumb now and then. In high school, a question on a standardized multiple choice aptitude test so amused me that I answered it incorrectly and decided to check  the funniest answers for the rest of the test. My score suggested that I had the intelligence of a wadded up paper towel. My teacher and the principal were not amused.

I still remember the question. It was..

Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of…

A. Salt

B. Pepper

C. Wood

D. Margarine 

Guess which one I chose.


Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Animals, Education, Ethics Dunces, Journalism & Media, Research and Scholarship

52 responses to “Incompetent Polling + Confirmation Bias + Lazy Analysis= Fake News

  1. Steve-O-in-NJ

    Sorry, couldn’t let this one pass.

  2. Laurent Canup

    Was it margarine?

  3. Is the primary ethics failure here in the researcher not scrutinizing the data or in the researcher composing dumb questions that may be more prone to having chuckle-heads give joke answers?

    • Isaac

      I almost certainly would have put myself in that 7%, assuming that it was an anonymous survey, with no benefits or consequences attached either way. I’m surprised only 7% of internet users trolled that poll.

    • Both. It’s one of those polls designed to show how [stupid/mean/ignorant] [ certain people/ the rich/ Republicans/conservatives/ one party or the other] are so we can mock r hates them. There’s bias going in and bias coming out. And in 2017, assuming any poll is accurate is per se incompetent.

      • There’s also an abuse of authority element here as well, if indeed these “studies” are designed to say “Americans are dumb”. Because the researchers know that merely claiming to engage in “serious study” will lend their pronouncements the weight of an authority.

  4. valkygrrl

    Pillar of pepper for added alliterative appeal.

  5. dragin_dragon

    I’d say wood. The statue thus created was later used as an animated and aggressive figurehead in one of the multitude of Sinbad movies (emphasis on bad).

  6. I think margarine would have to be the most amusing answer, especially for the anachronistic quality.

    I was a hit a few years back when I was standing in the poultry department at the Laramie Wal Mart. There were rows and rows and rows of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and suddenly realization came over me. Those breasts alone represented a lot of chickens. Multiply that by the fact that those breasts were bought or discarded and then replaced every few days. Multiply that by the other two grocery stores in Laramie, and then multiply that by the number of communities in Wyoming. The number of chickens slaughtered on a daily basis to stock the shelves in the least populated state in the union was staggering. (I don’t remember now the figures I produced, but a quick Google search shows that PETA thinks we kill 9 billion chickens a year in the United States alone.)

    From this, I began developing a theory of disconnect that we have been building in our society. In part, it was self-deprecating, since I felt really disconnect from the sheer magnitude it takes to feed our nation. But my litany now goes like this. Food comes from the grocery stores. Electricity comes from the outlet. Gasoline comes from the pump. Internet comes from your router. Things like that. I told my wife my theory, and she said, “No way. People aren’t that stupid.” And then her father showed her a newspaper clipping where someone opined, “To all you hunters who kill animals for food, shame on you; you ought to go to the store and buy the meat that was made there, where no animals were harmed.” At the time, she took it as concrete evidence that there were people that disconnected from our food sources.

    Of course, now you’ve wrecked that happy bubble we’ve been living in, and now upon a little investigation and a little charity, that quote does sound like a hunter trying to pass himself off as his idea of an ignorant animal-lover. Dang.

    Still, I do believe that disconnect is present and growing, even if it is not as extreme as I one thought it was. I’ll fight to defend my view, too, because I know at least one person (me) who occasionally suffers from that disconnect.

    I mean, who doesn’t marvel at how many chickens die to stock our grocery stores, or how many cows die to keep McDonald’s in business? Or how many trains hauling coal are needed to keep a power plant running? Or how many trucks are on the interstates keeping Amazon in business?

    • My gut instinct tells me that the biggest disconnect driving the average American’s vision of food production is probably that we think most of food comes from scroungy little frontiers-folk desperately trying make food grow out of a tiny little 40acres and a mule type situation. When the reality is that successful farms are like successful businesses- they grow and take in economies of scale and are nothing like what we may think of the stereotypical farm.

      • Tex, I’m sure that’s a portion, but I really think there’s a different portion that is based on complacency. Food appears in the grocery store, we know not how. It is incredible how angry people will get at the grocery store when winter weather closes down the interstate and the shelves go bare pretty quickly. It is also incredible how people will get angry at the cost of fruit when it is out of season. Why wouldn’t there be cheap strawberries year-round?

      • Phlinn

        I think at least part of the issue is that regular farms are abundant and easily seen (I live in Montana). Most farms are NOT factory farms. But, as far as I know, most meat comes from factory farms. 😦

    • Rich in CT

      >>how many cows die to keep McDonald’s in business?

      A McDonald’s near me had to take down its “Over X Billion” served sign, because it ran out of digits….

  7. Chris marschner

    Margarine, the most structurally stable building material

    • I hear that margarine was a substance that had no food value, and as proof you could leave it outside for weeks and nothing would grow in it.

      So I tried it. Not only did nothing grow in it, but the deer (who will eat a leather shoe when the mood takes them) and all other beasties did not touch it. we lived in the boondocks at the time, and everything from armadillos to bobcats (we had a local mountain lion too, that ate dogs: it picked on the big aggressive ones) to buzzards.

      I switched my family back to butter that very day.

    • It’s funny you should mention that; the fact that butter’s saturated fats make it more dense and solid than margarine was the reason that the Mantequillista sect of Fourteenth-Century Spain split off from the Roman Catholic Church (over a hundred years before Martin Luther’s Protestant movement) over the matter of Lot’s wife’s transmutation, considering it heretical to believe that it wasn’t butter. However, they were spread too thin against the main branch of the church, and eventually slipped out of historical memory.

      …Wait, sorry, which universe am I in again?

  8. Most of those who protest hunting in my experience (local to Texas, to be sure) are stopped cold when I ask if they are vegetarians. When they blink and assert in the negative, I ask where they get their meat from, and did they know anything about how it came to be there. I touch and prepare what I hunt, and know it is healthy. I tell them that a short google search will show slaughterhouses and living conditions for food animals… they shut up.

    • Vegetarians say they love animals. I say that they are eating those animal’s food!

      • Ha-ha – slickwilly, you reminded me of the sign I planned to make to carry in a false-flag operation. I was intent on embarrassing a bunch of leftists in a march in DC. My sign was going to say, “STOP THE SLAUGHTER OF INNOCENT PLANTS AND ANIMALS!! BE CANNIBALS!!” I pictured myself marching with that sign while constantly keeping a piece of jerky hanging between my lips, like some people do with cigarettes and marijuana joints. And if anyone asked, I would just say: “Human Butt Jerky…this is what happened to the last person who told me to bite his ass.” But, ultimately, I decided not to march; I trusted the true believers to show up and do plenty of self-embarrassment, without any help, which they did. This was years before Hannibal Lecter; I don’t recall seeing vagina caps.

  9. Ah, slick, you have restored my lack of faith in mankind! What really surprises me is how many people lack the understanding that licenses are typically issued to hunters to help thin the herds so that overpopulation doesn’t lead to the herds starving to death, and other health considerations for the population as a whole. But no, we can’t have anyone shooting at Bambi!

  10. E2 (nee Elizabeth I)

    Margarine. No doubt about it.

  11. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of…
    A. Salt
    B. Pepper
    C. Wood
    D. Margarine

    Considering what’s on the mind of “every” teenage boy, the only logical choice would be wood; she was turned into a woodie*.

    * Woodie:
    “vulgar slang (of a man) a penile erection.”

    • Null

      If there had been a giant wooden phallus around, things could have been a lot different after that whole Sodom incident. With a souvenir like that, they could have kept it in the family.

  12. Spartan

    Boaty McBoatface

  13. Errol

    There is an old saying, “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer”. After a while I realized that what may be a stupid question when asked by an adult was not so stupid when asked by a child.

  14. luckyesteeyoreman

    I have to guess margarine, since it’s a material that would not have existed in the time of Lot’s wife. I favor absurdity. (That was an APTITUDE TEST question?! That reflects a test designer lacking in…something.)

  15. Sharon

    Oh god….you mean that 7% of all Americans do NOT think that chocolate milk come from a brown cow? Studies like these have made me feel on the “right side” of the Dunning- Krueger Effect…or the whole Dunning-Krueger phenomena. I felt I was doing pretty well at somewhat of a young age. Jesus! I’m going to go study some obscure history for HOURS. And your answer was probably margarine.

  16. Emily

    Researchers who aren’t looking for headlines do recognize this sort of thing and other reasons you can’t take answers at face value.

    My mom was doing research at an STD clinic in Baltimore, and on one survey they asked about sexual history. Somehow almost all of the men had had intercourse with dozens of women, while almost all of the women had been with one man in a monogamous relationship. My mom didn’t think she’d made some startling discovery about the amazing dichotomy of promiscuity and restraint in inner city Baltimore.

  17. I will keep you in no more suspense. The answer I checked was indeed D, margarine. The answer still makes me laugh. It set off my silly alarm immediately, and maybe it has never stopped ringing.

    I was not a normal teenager. That much was always clear.

  18. Sharon

    Thank you Emily, I needed that. And thank you Jack. I knew it was margarine. It’s been a long day.

  19. LF wilburn

    Growing up on a farm in East Tennessee, I was very amused when my uncle and his wife (who was from Cleveland, Ohio), refused to eat our “chicken” eggs and to drink our “cow’s” milk. She wanted eggs and milk from the store and she was serious. Bless her heart.

  20. brian

    So, a dairy interest group, whose job is to promote Dairy interests in part via raising public awareness, puts out a survey and asks ‘Where does chocolate milk come from?’. When some portion of the population respond with funny answers, exactly as the survey authors were hoping for, the “results” of the survey are reported all over the internet generating massive attention on Milk and probably generating as many hits on the interest groups website in one day as they got in the last 4 years combined. Who’s fooling who?

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