Someone Is Wrong on the Internet!* (An Update)

You know, by now, how I feel about getting things right. We’ve talked about …

✱ the importance of getting quotations worded and attributed correctly (“No, You May Not Use as Your Source”)

✱ when and how to use footnotes (“Let’s Talk About Notes”)

✱ seeking permission for material you want to quote (“They Say It’s Easier to Ask for Forgiveness Than Permission”)

✱ copyrights (yours and others’), trademarks, and libel (“Legal Issues”), and even …

✱ how to be discerning when you’re researching (“The Internet Can Be Unreliable”)

As an editor, I’ve learned to question everything—even in fiction. Like the author who wanted to write that a pair of cardinals came back year after year (for ten years!) to build a nest outside his bedroom window. Because they mate for life. (Oh, please. Annual survival rates for adult cardinals has been estimated at 60 to 65 percent; due to the high mortality rate of baby birds, though, the average lifespan is just one year.) Or the author who wanted me to believe that medieval peasants bought books (and knew how to read them). Seriously, in the 1400s. Riiiight.

But most folks don’t assume that most everything they read is in error. :) Thus social media is festering with infographics that are—not to put too fine a point on it—wrong. I’m not talking about folks with an agenda. Most of us can see those fools coming a mile away. I’m talking about things that look right but aren’t, because the creator didn’t know how to correctly research and attribute.

Like the infographic called “Surprising Book Facts” I’ve seen a dozen times in the last forty-eight hours. I saw it two dozen times some fifteen months ago, and it’s making the rounds again. I’m not going to post it here because it’s ridiculous and wrong and I don’t want to perpetuate it.

My BS meter started red-lining when I read this list of “facts” (yes, those are scare quotes and I know how to use ’em). But some fella named Robb Brewer thought they were so impressive he made a little orange-and-blue infographic out of them. Then he put © on it (a copyright, for Pete’s sake!), vaguely mentioned the Jenkins Group as the source, and posted it on his blog.

Almost as quickly as horrified readers started passing the thing around like Moses had carried it down from Mount Sinai, other readers started scratching their heads. Uh, really? Nah. I know that’s what I thought when I saw it, weeks or months later. And that’s what this guy thought too:

So I decided to don some detective garb and investigate. And, honestly, it took about five minutes to find out that the study is not at all what it appears. How did I reach this conclusion? I called the 1-800 number* on The Jenkins Group’s website, and spoke with a very helpful gentleman, who informed me that erroneous information about this “study” has been floating around the internet, unfounded, for almost a decade.

He told me that the reason for the confusion is that the founder of The Jenkins Group once gave a presentation at an event in which he cited these reading statistics in his speech. The statistics were, as far as The Jenkins Group can recall, from a variety of legitimate sources, including the Book Industry Study Group and U.S. News & World Reports. However, since it’s been a decade since this presentation, and I suppose it’s unreasonable to think The Jenkins Group still has the notes from the speech, that’s where the trail ends. Wherever these statistics were originally published, they were clearly not published by The Jenkins Group.

All this outrage caused Brewer to backpedal too. He published a blog post about it.

An infographic I posted a several months ago has produced much interest. Several websites used the graphic on their own pages which has caused large numbers of people to blow up my email wondering about my statistical sources.

First, I created the graphic because I’m a book lover and wanted to express my passion for reading through a different method. While I’m well-versed in research methodologies, my goal wasn’t—and still isn’t—to produce a quantitative, peer-reviewed product. I simply wanted to illustrate reading importance.

He goes on to say, “I think it’s safe to say the stats from the original graphic are questionable, and I am therefore recanting any and all connection to them.” Dude. The damage is done.

To try to make amends, Brewer did some actual research and re-created his infographic with less outrageous facts. Of course, the only place you see it is at his blog.

Meanwhile, the bad infographic continues to circulate. Since I’m an editor, I’m a wet blanket in a lot of conversations about the written word, so it doesn’t bother me to tell my Facebook friends, “No, those statistics are questionable at best and the guy who created that thing has washed his hands of it.” Now, please, go ye therefore into all the world, and let’s put a stop to this thing.

* This little one-panel cartoon from xkcd is one of my very favorite. You can see why. :)


Tweet: Social media is festering with infographics that are just plain wrong. Like this one.
Tweet: Dude. The damage is done. Do your research before you publish, not after.
Tweet: My BS meter started red-lining when I read this list of “facts.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. […] written quite a bit about sourcing quotes here and here, and I’ve written about fact-checking here.) When you factor in people whose minds are closed to virtually all information that does not fit […]