Has reading comprehension gone down? The answer may surprise you.

This is a public service announcement:

  1. "16% of the group" means "my just-so story has no actual support from the study".
  2. Especially if that number only appears in the final paragraph.
  3. "Design concept" means "I have created nothing except a pretty picture in Photoshop".
  4. The phrase "Although the project is currently conceptual" appearing a dozen paragraphs in means "the so-called reporter is intentionally trying to deceive you".
  5. "Filed a patent" means "this article is a press release". (It also means "our patent system is a joke.")
  6. If the headline asks a question, the answer is NO. (If the answer was even plausibly yes, the headline would state it as an unqualified fact).

Stop being such credulous, incurious motherfuckers. Thank you.

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11 Responses:

  1. Tim says:

    Your last item is better known as "Betteridge's law of headlines". Someone actually did an informal but surprisingly systematic study of this:


    ...and found that it seemed to be nearer 50% yes/no.

    • Ben says:

      He clearly didn't have time for "Previously": https://www.jwz.org/blog/2011/12/headlines/

      There "you" left basically the same first comment, five years ago.

      • Tim says:

        If you'd actually read my link, you'd see it is to a 2015 study which purports to negate Betteridge's law. Surely the point of original post is that people should not credulously accept things, including posts and comments on this blog.

        Anyway, thanks for the momentary terror that I'd posted exactly the same comment five years ago. I'm not quite that decrepit -- yet!

        • Ben says:

          Yes, a completely bullshit "study" where the author arbitrarily decided whether or not the question was true.

          I was giving you a bit too much credit by saying "basically the same" and ignoring the less useful part of your comment.

          • Tim says:

            Thanks for the credit. I agree the study is a bit smelly, but how would you decide the question otherwise?

  2. Jon Lennox says:

    Sometimes if the headline is a question, the answer is "fuck if I know."

  3. MattyJ says:

    I'd like to know how to interpret headlines that start "Do this one thing ..."

    I click on those all the time but I'm still fat. But I get tons of offers of marriage from Russian models!

  4. "Filed a patent" means "this article is a press release". (It also means "our patent system is a joke.")

    Now, be fair. Sometimes it means "a company filed a patent for something completely creepy-sounding but ridiculous (because our patent system is a joke) and we think we can whip up some outrage by pretending it's about to be imposed on you by force of law."

    (cf last week's internet-wide circle jerk about how Apple was going to magically prevent you from taking photographs at concerts)

  5. Thomas Lord says:

    SF BARF is terrific of examples of innumeracy and illogic. A small example, just the latest I stumbled across:

    β€œI talked to Sam Altman, the head of Y Combinator,” Trauss says. β€œHe told me that Y Combinator alone creates 10,000 new jobs a year in the Bay Area. That means we need 5,000 new homes. At least.” -- http://grist.org/cities/urban-activists-set-out-to-sue-san-franciscos-suburbs/

  6. Bill Paul says:

    I can only express puzzlement that borders on alarm.

  7. Tim says:

    Sorry for mini-flamewar above; I was in the wrong.

    Some of my bugbears:

    - any article based on a survey which is basically a press release is useless;
    - almost all articles based on press releases are useless -- exception: the journalist does some analysis, rather than just rephrase the press release;
    - any survey which doesn't give the sample size, error margins etc, is generally useless;
    - quoting a move in an opinion poll of less than 3% (the usual error margin in a 1000-person poll) is useless (far too many opinion polls and headlines in the UK);
    - "will be on the market in 5 years" usually means "never" or "we have no idea";
    - if an article confirms or reinforces your prejudices, it's probably not terribly well balanced;
    - conversely, if an article purports to tell you something surprising! new!, it needs pretty good supporting evidence; novelty without proof tends to the useless (I fell for this one myself above, as Ben points out);
    - the magic word "could" in a headline means you can often append ("...but probably won't");
    - similarly "linked" as in "X linked to Y" often means nothing at all (used in everything from kiss-and-tell tabloid stories to smears in quality newspapers)