Venereal disease is hilarious. At least you would think so judging by the way it gets covered in some media stories (especially the soft and fluffy “And Finally…” stories that go viral towards the weekend). Another good trope is the stupidity of the general person. You, for example. Your stupidity is also hilarious. Ha ha ha.
So here we go. Although the item is not exactly new, a Time magazine report that “11% of Americans think HTML is an STD” has today been trending on Reddit. Eleven per cent! That’s a lot of Americans. In fact, it’s 35,733,890 (I’m assuming we’re talking the whole population — children, babies, people in a coma, etc. — I mean, they would have specified in the headline if we weren’t, right?).
And we know this because of — you’ve guessed it — a survey. Or a “study” as they like to say in the sci/tech pages nowadays. This one was conducted by VoucherCloud, an online business whose marketing strategy, quelle surprise, relies on attention-grabbing news stories featuring hyperlinks to their website. (Here’s a link to the UNHCR’s Syria Crisis Appeal page instead.)
So here’s my critique: Survey.
Survey, survey, survey, survey, survey.
Let’s leave aside the ad hoc sampling (covering not all Americans, but only those who stumble across a particular website), the tiny sample (of some 2,000 or so, or just 0.0006% of the total population), or the possibility that some of the respondents may not have taken the research all that seriously (I know, crazy).
Let’s instead reflect on the fact that the respondents were effectively given a forced-choice question where the included options were contrived to be eye-catching. Respondents were required to choose what HTML might be by selecting from a list that included, for no good reason, “sexually transmitted disease”.
Simply put, we can presume that some people had no idea what HTML is. They just guessed. They had to. Otherwise they couldn’t complete the survey. So if some of them chose the “sexually transmitted disease” option, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.
In fact, it is utterly unbelievable that before the survey 35 million Americans were walking around America thinking HTML is a sexually transmitted disease, and that the survey takers were able to uncover this just by asking the right questions.
If anything, the VoucherCloud survey didn’t measure people’s beliefs — it modified them. Because of the magic of cognitive priming, I’m guessing some of the folks who took part probably really do now have the perception that HTML is an STD, or at least that it might be.
(Two final observations. Firstly, about as many respondents declared that HTML was “the main road structure throughout England.” But this isn’t nearly as funny as “sexually transmitted disease” and so it is not nearly as newsworthy. Hence no associated headlines. Sex sells. Even at Time magazine.
Secondly, it turns out that a prominent media ethics website called bullshit on the entire survey. The survey takers stuck to their guns and promised that they really did collect the data. Read more about the case here.)
Of course, we all know that HTML stands for “How To Make Love,” right? Yes. Yes, we do.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.