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A few years back I did a lecture series talking about how quickly myths can spread online. “A lie can make it halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” as Mark Twain once said. Or he didn’t, because there’s no evidence that he ever said it, which is why it’s my favorite famous quote of all time. The irony is so rich.
But still, it’s true, today more than ever. It’s so easy to share interesting facts and stories, and we do it without always double-checking to make sure they’re true. More worryingly, mainstream media outlets often share these things without double-checking to make sure they’re true.
You may be familiar with the debate over plastic straws — they’re pointless for most people who are capable of drinking out of cups without the use of a straw, or with a paper or reuseable metal straw. They’re made from a scarce resource that keeps getting scarcer, and they end up as litter that can really screw up an ecosystem by choking wildlife.
I want to add here that I do sympathize with disability rights groups who are worried about people who need plastic straws, since for some people metal straws may damage their mouths if they shake uncontrollably, and paper straws can be a choking hazard if they come apart. That said, it’s an easy fix: just let stores stop giving people a straw by default. It’s the same as what happened with water here in California during the drought. You could still ask your restaurant server for tap water, but it wouldn’t just appear magically on your table whether or not you wanted it. People who need a plastic straw can still ask for one, but banning their automatic inclusion could help reduce a significant waste of plastic.
The question now becomes, just how significant is that waste? Dozens of mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, reported on this hot topic citing a specific number: they said that Americans use 500 million straws every day. That’s about 1.5 straws per person per day, which would be the equivalent of filling 127 school buses every day. That is a shocking, disturbing number, but it’s not actually true.
The “500 million” figure actually comes from, of all people, a 9-year old environmentalist named Milo Cress who was doing a school project on waste back in 2011. Back then, there was no easy way to Google the actual number, so Milo, to his credit, called various straw manufacturers and then made an estimated guess. His project received some local news coverage, which ended up getting some slightly bigger coverage, and when the straw ban discussion began in earnest this month, people Googled and there was Milo’s number. No extra fact-checking needed, apparently.
In fact, there are now some more scientific measurements done by, well, adults. That’s not to say a 9-year old can’t do good science, but even Milo doesn’t remember his exact process. The actual number is probably 200 to 300 million straws per day, according to various market research firms. It’s still a huge number! I mean, that’s like, what, a good 60 school buses full of straws per day, if we’re measuring things in school buses now.
But Milo was off by 100%, which is actually quite a lot in scientific terms, and the problem is that now conservatives who just literally want to watch the world burn will use this as a way to say that the mainstream media is overhyping the situation and that we should all just calm down and let people throw their straws away.
And yes, I see the irony in conservatives yelling about this extremely minor “fake news” while their god damned president continues to go on TV telling outright whoppers in between declaring war on various nations via Twitter, but that’s the world we live in. We have to police our own, even when the other guys aren’t.