Don't Be Fooled: Media Literacy for a More Sustainable Future
Thursday, July 20, 2023
July 2023
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Don't Be Fooled: Media Literacy for a More Sustainable Future

Why you shouldn’t believe everything you read if you want to take sustainability seriously

by Travis Korte

Certain claims get repeated so often that they become “conventional wisdom,” whether or not they’re true. You’ve probably heard and even accepted some of these fun facts: humans only use 10 percent of our brains, goldfish have three-second memories, and chewing gum takes seven years to digest. The trouble is: not one of those figures holds up to scrutiny. Some of them may have started out with a robust research finding but got contorted in retellings over time, while others were probably made up to begin with. But they’ve made it past many people’s BS detectors regardless.

It probably doesn’t matter that much that none of those figures are right — there aren’t many key policy decisions that hinge on goldfish memories. But even the discourse around important environmental and social issues isn’t immune to the problem of faulty “facts.” These topics really matter, so the misunderstandings carry outsized significance. At Ethic, we try to help our clients cut through the misreported, the misleading, and the downright phony when it comes to sustainability issues. Here’s some of what we’ve learned in the process.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Fact-Checking

A lot of conventional wisdom starts out as news. But news organizations don’t just report world events; they make choices about what stories their audience will find most interesting, and “interesting” doesn’t always mean informative. Even if an article is well-reported, its headline (which often isn’t written by the article’s author) might not be. And it’s the headline statistics that stick in readers’ heads, regardless of the strength of their foundations. 

For example, did you know the fashion industry is responsible for a fifth of global water pollution? Hopefully you didn’t, because it’s not true. The figure, popularized in a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, was soundly debunked, but not before fooling some consequential organizations. It turns out that fashion might be responsible for 20 percent of industrial water pollution (i.e., excluding agriculture and household sewage) in China (where textiles account for a relatively large share of GDP), but not necessarily in other countries. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make as good a headline. 

But what’s especially egregious here is that the headline figure is totally unbelievable on its face. The global textiles market is about $1 trillion, which puts it at about 1 percent of global GDP. Accordingly, more reasonable estimates of fashion’s share of overall water pollution put it in the low single digits — much more in line with what you might expect from an industry of its size. But multiple writers and researchers who saw that headline probably thought, “Wow, that figure is higher than I would have expected,” and then didn’t bother to check if it was true.  

You don’t have to make the same mistake. Next time you see a headline that’s so unbelievable you feel compelled to share it, ask yourself: “If it’s so unbelievable, should I believe it in the first place?”

Things Get Lost When Stats Change Hands

Research findings often get filtered through layers of other researchers, university press officers, and journalists, so it’s easy for a slightly misstated result to snowball into a completely wrong impression. A good example of this is the claim “You’re eating a credit card’s worth of plastic a week,” which appeared in a widely shared New York Post article in 2022. The good news is you almost certainly aren’t. But even people who ought to know better fell for the mangled stat, probably because the series of small errors that mangled it were hard to spot. 

Let’s trace through the game of telephone that led to the bad headline. In the Post’s defense, its wording is a reasonable interpretation of a press release from the Medical University of Vienna, which states: “Five grams of plastic particles on average enter the human gastrointestinal tract per person per week.” The press release is based on a research paper that adds a hedge: “...depending on the region in which we live, our lifestyle, and diet.” 

But the research paper isn’t the original source — it cites a second press release from a different group of researchers, whose version of the claim is, "Humans may be ingesting as much as 5 g/week of microplastics" (emphasis mine). That document doesn’t even link to the original paper (which is behind a paywall), but if you manage to track it down, you’ll find that it says, "Our preliminary estimates indicate that humans could potentially be ingesting between 0.1 to 5 g of microplastics per week," along with a list of seven different factors that might change the estimate for any given individual. 

This is practically unrecognizable compared to the headline we started with. This hyper-cautious language, wrapped around an extremely broad estimated range, got filtered through two groups of researchers, two press releases, and a news headline, and came out the other side as a full-throated warning that you, in particular, are at the maximum end of the plastic-eating range. 

Unfortunately, it takes a lot of work to unravel these kinds of misunderstandings, and even the savvier readers of the Post article probably stopped digging at the first university press release. It’s not entirely your fault if you fell for it. But next time you come across a blockbuster statistic in a headline, it’s worth asking: “Is that really what the original study says?”

The Debate Stage Isn’t a Reliable Source

The cliché that politicians lie is probably as old as politics itself, but even when they aren’t intentionally lying, they might still be cherry-picking their statistics. Debates, stump speeches, and other campaign communications are performances, so if a stat bolsters the image a candidate or political commentator is trying to project, they may be less inclined to scrutinize it.  

For example, former Vice President Mike Pence’s claim to an interviewer in 2019 that "The overwhelming majority, plus-90 percent [of immigrants to the U.S.] don't show up [to court hearings]” may not have been a lie — he may really have believed it was true — but it was a flimsy stat. Although a few publications repeated the claim, many fact-checks followed. A Washington Post analysis found that the “90 percent” figure referred to cases within a particular U.S. Department of Homeland Security initiative, where in-progress cases (i.e., most cases where defendants showed up) weren’t counted. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) official figure for no-shows is 44 percent; an analysis from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, an academic initiative at Syracuse University, suggests that the DOJ figure is itself an overestimate, putting the numbers for no-shows at just 19 percent. 

Dramatically different figures can have dramatically different implications for policy, so you can expect a statistic with several versions like this to be cherry-picked by people advocating for certain policy positions. Next time you hear a big statistic in a political forum, ask yourself: “Would the other side use a different stat? Which one is more likely to be right?”   

What’s Our Collective Responsibility?

Contending with topics like microplastics, fast fashion, and immigration justice is vital to building a more environmentally and socially sustainable world, but it will be hard to make progress if we as a society can’t get our facts straight. How well we understand these issues can significantly impact how we try to address them. Making estimates and back-of-the-envelope calculations are part of how we try to make sense of our complicated world, and we don’t have the time to be full-time researchers tracking down the source for every single claim. But when the issues really matter to people’s lives or the state of our environment, we have a duty to do better. 

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Sources and footnotes

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Contributors

Travis Korte is the associate director of Sustainability Research & Data at Ethic. Previously, Travis organized civic-minded technologists at Hack for LA and advised a wide range of clients on data science, data policy, and quantitative methods. You can follow him on Twitter at @traviskorte.

Melissa Banigan is a content strategist with over 15 years of communications experience working with global companies and nonprofits. Also a journalist and author, her work appears in The Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, NPR, and the Independent, among other publications, and she's written three books for youth.