As you may or may not know, I often speak up against the way that sometimes, a “fact” will show up on Wikipedia, unchallenged, for years, only to stumble into books large and small over the next number of years, something I call “The Windex Problem.”
But what if the data point is something being shared not by an encyclopedia, but by a number of nonprofits looking to make the case for a bigger mission?
That’s the problem that I was made aware of regarding a notably interesting statistic regarding straws, a topic of a Tedium post from last spring. The statistic was basically as such: Every day, Americans use 500 million plastic straws. That’s certainly a lot, but it doesn’t sound completely off, because many people use multiple plastic straws each day.
I cited National Geographic for this stat, a source that is large enough to have fact checkers scour through its feature stories. It cited the National Park Service, which wrote an article on a the Be Straw Free campaign, which aims to end straw overuse. That campaign came up with the 500 million number, with this note on its FAQ site:
The number of disposable straws distributed for use in the US are based on estimates provided by straw manufacturers we (at BeStrawFree) researched for this project. Some environmental groups we talked to told us they believe this estimate to be low. While it does include some, it does not include all of the straws attached to juice and milk cartons which are handed out in school lunchrooms and put into lunch boxes every day.
Part of the problem with this estimate, as pointed out by Reason (and later parlayed to me by reader Chris Harris), is that the statistic was discovered by a teenager who came up with the stat when he was just nine years old.
Now, to be fair, that teen, Milo Cress, came up with the statistic with the help of his mom, who assisted in his grade-school research. (Reason says that the National Restaurant Association corroborated the statistic; the book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too says, conversely, that the restaurant association originated it.) But still, it’s not like an academic study has been done to create this estimate.
Admittedly, both sides have an agenda here: Reason, being the libertarian magazine of record, doesn’t want to see laws passed that limit the number of straws—and the magazine wrote its piece in response to legislation cropping up in California that pushes all of their buttons. Meanwhile, environmental groups understandably want to promote a world with less environmental waste, and 500 million a day is a big, juicy stat that you can write home about.
And let’s face it, even if it’s not 500 million, it’s probably “a lot.” It might even be more, though it might just be a lot less. Considering the world buys a million plastic bottles a minute and 480 billion a year, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that straws might get used at a similar clip. (That number, actually produced by a research firm, would mean that the world uses 1.3 billion plastic bottles a day.)
But in the end, this situation represents the way in which information on the internet can get blurred by sourcing. One source seems reputable enough, other outlets suddenly feel comfortable citing it. But if the reputable source falsely offers its weight to a statistic without the rigor we come to expect from them—in this case, the National Park Service—it can throw off the whole ordeal. It’s a slightly more-squeaky version of the Windex problem, and one I’m sure plays out all the time.
“It's sad that so many outlets are treating the rigorous survey work of an elementary school student as the statistic about plastic straw use. But it's not very surprising,” Reason’s Christian Britschgi argued in a follow-up.
I wouldn’t call it “sad,” so much as human nature. It sounds like a good number, and it appears to have been vetted, so we believe it. (That said, I'm updating the original story and linking to this.) Perhaps, since we’re talking about it, now’s a good time for academia to actually do a proper estimate. Maybe Milo could help.