2017 minus 30: Modern day myths (part 1)

Posted: 2 December 2016 in 2017 minus

There’s been much in the media recently about the prevalence of ‘fake news’, and – in the more sensible pieces – an acknowledgement that it’s most definitely not a one-party nor one-sided issue. During the US election, a study suggested that while some conservative leaning websites promoted fake news almost 40% of the time, some liberal sites were doing the same 19% of the time. And almost 1 in 5 is nothing to be proud of. If your only defence is “well, they do it as well” or “we don’t do it as much as they do it”, then you’ve no other defence. And you should be ashamed. “He started it,” is an accusation and defence that belongs in the playgroup… and should stay there. 

What made me think of it today was seeing someone were doing Sudoko puzzles in my local coffee shop. Hard to remember now, but it seems that not that long ago, pretty much every coffee shop, every train, every tube, every bus, had their chunk of people puzzling over those 9 x 9 grids. I did them for the same reason I occasionally did the ‘logic grid’ puzzles; I enjoyed the intellectual excercise and found achieving a solution greatly satisfying. I’d get the local London paper and bang out the ‘easy’ and ‘moderate’ ones and – hopefully – get the ‘challenging’ one done as well, though rarely easily. 

Thing is, I remember people at the time saying, and the puzzle-solver’s friend said it this morning, “I don’t know how you can do them. I can’t. I’m useless at maths.” Which drove, and drives, me crazy, because it’s a daft and inaccurate statement in and of itself. As anyone who’s even attempted the puzzle knows, it’s all to do with logic; nothing to do with arithmetic, let alone maths

And yet, time and again, I heard people say that they can’t do it because they’re no good at maths. (On a side point, why is maths the only subject you ever hear people say that about, almost with a self-deprecating pride? You never hear people shrug and grin and say “well, I’m terrible at history, but ah well…”)

Sudoko uses numbers because it’s convenient, no other reason. Long ago, when it first became A Thing for people to do, that it was about maths because it uses numbers became a modern day myth.

And that started me thinking of what other modern day myths exist. Not just the ‘easily proved’ things that people wrongly claim, but things that people just… know… even though they’re wrong because either they haven’t thought deeply about it or  indeed because they’ve never devoted a moment’s thought to it.

I’m Jewish. I know, I know, shock news. But were you to ask a dozen people in the street how many Jews there are in the UK, I doubt (unless the person you were speaking to actually was Jewish) they’d come anywhere close to the real answer. Which, it might or might not surprise you to know, is about 280,000 according to the latest surveys. I’ve asked loads of people over my time. Usual answers are between a million and two million. Out of a general population of around sixty million; around 2½% of the population, in other words, instead of the actual ‘less than ½%’.  

Another example is “knife crime”. Pretty much everyone, I think, would agree that there’s far more serious knife crime these days, and that it’s increasing… except it’s not. Last time I checked, the number of knife victims has remained fairly stable – although there have been occasional spikes. And there are just so plenty of contrasts of “what does the public think?” compared to the actual numbers. Fact Check, FullFact, Politifact and – a personal favourite – BBC Radio 4’s More or Less all do an essential job.

So what other modern day myths are there? And what modern day myths do I fall for, even though I should know better? 

I’ll return to this next week, with a list of what I consider to be the most ridiculous modern day myths.

Tomorrow, though, you get another Saturday Smile.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

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