Reminder: 10 Percent of People Will Believe Anything

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 5 2014 6:11 PM

1 in 9 Americans Thinks HTML Is an STD, Which Is Funny, Not Surprising, and Maybe Untrue

shutterstock_1568180
Everyone practice safe HTML, please.

Photo by Shutterstock.

When you first hear that 11 percent of Americans think that HTML is an STD, it sounds like Americans are hilariously dumb. HTML is a markup language for Web pages that's been around since 1993. But if you think about it, 10 percent of people is not a lot. More than 50 percent of people in this 2012 study thought that cloud computing was negatively affected by bad weather. Perhaps more importantly, you should be wondering where the study is from and how it was conducted.

Lily Hay Newman Lily Hay Newman

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

Over the last few days, journalists and bloggers have been writing about the HTML/STD study. Its big hit came in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. But until iMediaEthics and other watchdogs began poking around, no one had actually seen the study itself, and even the press release was hard to find because it hadn't been publicly posted anywhere. It came from the public relations firm 10 Yetis, which represents Vouchercloud, a British coupon service. Now the press release and the study itself have surfaced, but the chain of events is troubling.

First of all, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, many Americans have little or no understanding of how programming works, much less what gives browsers directions about how to display Web pages. Furthermore, 10 percent of Americans probably believe pretty much anything. For example, 18 percent thought Barack Obama was Muslim in August 2010.

Advertisement

The popularit of the story speaks to debates about lack of fact-checking in online journalism, as everyone rushes to publish. But it also touches on an equally worrisome point: Do journalists and readers know how numbers work? 

The survey polled 2,392 Americans 18 and older over the course of seven days and asked: "Please check the correct definitions of the items listed below:" The three options for "HTML" were "The main road structure in England," "Sexually-transmitted disease," and "Programming language used to make websites." Seventy-nine percent of respondents got it right. Ten percent thought it was the English roads thing. That seems weirder than the STD answer, especially if you're guessing: After all, there are a lot of STDs that start with the letter "H."

But going back to interpreting numbers, there are other problems with this story. Leanne Thomas, a senior account executive for 10 Yetis, has given a statement to the Los Angeles Times, saying that the survey is "100% genuine" and "valid." But it's still unclear what the methods were for selecting the participants, and whether they are a representative sample of the U.S. population.

Finally, 11 percent should be considered "1 in 9," but for some reason multiple outlets wrote that "1 in 10" people believed HTML was an STD.

A majority of Americans should feel free to proceed with knowing what HTML is and having safe sex, but maybe everyone needs to bone up on basic statistics. And apparently fractions.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Roads & Kingdoms
Sept. 19 2014 11:35 AM Tourism After the Taliban Bamiyan, a small Afghan mountain town best known for its blown-up Buddhas, wants to be your next holiday destination.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 19 2014 12:08 PM The CIA Used to Have a Commute-by-Canoe Club. One Member’s Memories.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 12:10 PM Watch the Trailer for Big Eyes, a Tim Burton Movie About People With Normal-Sized Eyes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 11:36 AM Clean Air Is for the Wealthy How California’s green-vehicle subsidies magnify the state’s income inequality problem.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.