Fact checking Snopes

Amy Chua

There is a new blog post entitled, “A tale of three professors, all women, all of Asian descent.”

Tom Bartlett, “A Yale Law Prof Was Disciplined for Holding Dinner Parties. There‚Äôs More to the Story,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-yale-law-prof-was-disciplined-for-holding-dinner-parties-theres-more-to-the-story


Ageism

If you call yourself an egalitarian, you might well be ageist.[1]

Sarah Todd, “Older people are the one group egalitarians discriminate against,” Quartz, April 22, 2021, https://qz.com/work/1999849/one-surprising-cause-of-ageism-in-the-workplace/


Snopes

So an issue arose on Twitter where I thought that Snopes denied, among other things, that the U.S. has the highest ratio of incarcerated people to general population.

What Snopes actually says is “[t]he United States has comfortably the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, according to two reliable sources” and that “the U.S. does not have the world’s highest oil or automobile gasoline consumption, or highest military spending, when important contextual factors like population size and GDP are taken into account.”[2] But the phrasing made it look, if you read too quickly, which I did, like it was also denying that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate.

Which ultimately set me in search of where I had previously found incarceration statistics. It seems the Kings College of London no longer hosts the World Prison Brief (which, from the feedback I got on Twitter, may be a good thing). I eventually managed to track down the new location. It’s a little wonky to use now. First, you want “Highest to Lowest” under the “World Prison Brief data” dropdown list from the top menu bar. You need to select which category of data you want—there are several choices— and click “Go.” Then, and only then, can you choose the region—for our purposes here, we want the world—for which you want the data and click “Apply.” These are two separate steps and why they decided to make it like this baffles me entirely. I’m sure it didn’t used to be this weird.

For the record, the U.S. is indeed number one in both total prison population and prison population as a proportion of total population.[3]

As to military spending, this is a hoary topic because different countries include different things in their military budgets and, of course, a certain proportion of military spending is classified, therefore publicly off the books. Snopes is here overconfident in its claim.

I don’t know about gasoline or oil consumption and frankly don’t care. This number doesn’t matter nearly as much as a total of all fossil fuel consumption and, really, the amount of pollution, including greenhouse gases, pumped into the environment. The number also may fail to account for the amount of ethanol added to gasoline, apparently as a sop to corn growers, which would, once again, undermine any comparison with other countries that don’t subsidize corn farming in this way.

I’m sure it had been reported, probably back when I was an undergraduate, that the U.S. was the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the Union of Concerned Scientists now names China in aggregate and Saudi Arabia per capita. But we’re second in total and fourth per capita,[4] so yes, we have a lot of work we should be doing before asking most other countries to do their share.

In general, fact checkers do need to be fact checked. I have previously seen instances where they were over-reliant on quantitative data, which is superficial, and where operationalization, that is, the process of choosing variables to represent things that might not be directly measurable, can sometimes be not be so good.

Finally, simple and well-known statistical methods in quantitative methodology assume a “normal” (bell curve) distribution. As data deviates from a “normal” distribution, exotic and somewhat mystical methods may be employed, making it more difficult, if not impossible, for other researchers to evaluate the appropriateness of the methods chosen. The possibility that some researchers may occasionally choose plausible but inappropriate methods to produce desired results, rather than methods to honestly answer research questions, and that such studies might make it past peer review and into publication, simply cannot be excluded.

In the topics at hand, Snopes is probably mostly right. But I wouldn’t bet a wooden nickel on their claim about military spending.

Dan MacGuill, “Does US Rank No. 1 in Incarceration, Gas Consumption, Military Spending?” Snopes, April 14, 2021, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/incarceration-gas-consumption-us/


  1. [1]Sarah Todd, “Older people are the one group egalitarians discriminate against,” Quartz, April 22, 2021, https://qz.com/work/1999849/one-surprising-cause-of-ageism-in-the-workplace/
  2. [2]Dan MacGuill, “Does US Rank No. 1 in Incarceration, Gas Consumption, Military Spending?” Snopes, April 14, 2021, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/incarceration-gas-consumption-us/
  3. [3]Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, “World Prison Brief,” n.d., https://www.prisonstudies.org/
  4. [4]Union of Concerned Scientists, “Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions,” August 12, 2020, https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions

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