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15 Times Major Media Outlets Used a Statistic about Plastic Straws Based on Research by a 9-Year-Old

A number's popularity does not prove its accuracy.

Yesterday, I reported that the oft-cited, debate-driving statistic that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day was the product of a 9-year-old's guesstimations. Despite those shaky factual foundations, the 500 million figure has quickly spread, virus-like, across the media landscape and even into our shops and schools.

Visitors to the D.C. tea house Teaism—just a short walk from Reason's D.C. office—will be confronted with the questionable fact on a small poster adorning the restaurant's single-use straw dispenser, replete with a picture of a cute sea turtle. Meanwhile, impressionable children at the Mount Vernon Community School in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, are coming home with "Straw Wars" handouts citing the same dubious figure.

It's easy to understand how the school could have been led astray, given how ubiquitous this claim is in the media. Please see below for a list of just a few of the news outlets that have cited this "fact"—or otherwise quoted people saying it without any critical pushback—in their reporting:

Activist groups are also quick to promote the claim. Among them:

And of course government officials have embraced the number too. The National Park Service has touted it. So has California Assemblyman Ian Calderon. It's in the text of a Hawaii bill that would ban the distribution of plastic straws in the state.

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. Attempts to ban plastic straws—or indeed any plastic product—have as much to do with signaling your environmentalist bona fides as they do with actually cleaning up the oceans or saving the planet. So people pushing the claim have little incentive to investigate it. And the media have every incentive to hype the impact of a phenomenon they're covering.

Let this serve as a reminder: A statistic's popularity does not prove its accuracy.

Photo Credit: Hellen Sergeyeva/Dreamstime.com

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  • SIV||

    Good work exposing the FAKE NEWS, Britchgis.

  • SIV||

    Good work exposing the FAKE NEWS, Britchgis.

  • Red Tony||

    Good work exposing the squirrels, chickenlover.

  • GILMORE™||

    FYI

    putting the name 'tony' in your handle will default block you from anyone using Reasonable/Greasonable

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Did Reasonable get fixed?

  • Rhywun||

    No.

  • silver.||

    TIL about scripts for reason's somewhat-sparse commenting system.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Seriously, this story exposes the reality of what we call "news" that has existed since the invention of the printing press and thanks to Christian for bringing it to our attention. The media, left right or otherwise, simply regurgitate the mouthings of authority figures. The vomit that makes it into print or video is entirely at the discretion of the editors and publishers and subject to their politics and world view. These are not wise people. They promoted things like prohibition, the war on drugs, Japanese internment, the war in Viet Nam (until they changed their minds), weapons of mass destruction, the population explosion, peak oil, the New Deal, the Great Society, forced busing, global cooling, global warming and thousands of other idiotic notions. If democracy dies in darkness, why are they hell bent on keeping us in the dark?
    Looks to me like Christian did his due diligence and got a scoop. Will any of the outlets listed above print a correction or admit their stupidity? Will anybody aside from Reason expose these pretenders?
    I'll defer to my own authority.
    https://tinyurl.com/y7gzprj7

  • sharmota4zeb||

    My animal behavior professor in college told us not to trust National Geographic, because they airbrush pictures of primates to keep them G-rated.

  • GILMORE™||

    "g-rated"

    spoken like someone who's never fapped to Nat Geo titty pics of native tribeswomen

  • Citizen X - #6||

    That was all some of us had, before the Internet.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I know, now we can fab to the native tribeswomen on the internet.

  • Rufus T. Firefly.||

    In 4K might add.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    fapped to Nat Geo titty pics of native tribeswomen

    Fetishizing black and brown bodies is extremely problematic.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Taste is problematic.

  • Mark22||

    Lucky then that that is pretty uncommon.

  • p3orion||

    Problematic, but worse yet: is it cultural appropriation?

  • Tommy_Grand||

    And, furthermore, do you have "storytelling rights" to complain about the problematic representation?

    (Google it)

  • Tommy_Grand||

    And, furthermore, do you have "storytelling rights" to complain about the problematic representation?

    (Google it)

  • GILMORE™||

    "15 Times Major Media Outlets Used a Statistic about Plastic Straws Based on Research by 9-Year-Old
    A number's popularity does not prove its accuracy"

    noted: you just published a blog post with a list of "happiest cities" based on...

    ...some list cooked up by one guy, based on nothing more than his personal handful of subjective criteria.

    Journalists love numbers and lists and univariate charts. they give the weight of "facty-ness" to their own subtle editorializing

  • ||

    Journalists love numbers and lists and univariate charts. they give the weight of "facty-ness" to their own subtle editorializing

    In all fairness, I think everybody's on the same page (or at least more people are) with regard to happiness as opposed to 500 Million straws. There is a number out there for the number of straws and it's not 500M.

  • GILMORE™||

    "" everybody's on the same page (or at least more people are) with regard to happiness""

    As i noted in the previous thread: the methodology measuring 'happiness' was basically, "cities that one dude from Nat Geo liked"

    because the ratio of vegetarian restraurants is like totally synonymous w/ happy people. never mind the stoner crusty punks littering the sidewalks

  • ||

    because the ratio of vegetarian restraurants is like totally synonymous w/ happy people. never mind the stoner crusty punks littering the sidewalks

    As if walking around with a clipboard putting down one check for "I dunno, yeah, I guess.", two checks for "Yeah, sure." and three for "Woohoo, yeah! You'd better fucking believe it." would've been a better metric or correlation?

    It just doesn't seem to me that people hear/read the words 'happiest city' and just take it at face value. Nobody's confusing 1 chortle of happiness with a gallon of gas, a watt of electricity, or a dozen eggs. Even reporters who really just want to entertain you and don't give two shits about the fact still print how the happiness metric was arrived at.

  • Rich||

    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.

    Why do you hate children, Christian? WHY?!

  • Red Tony||

    Because kids are jerks.

  • Rebel Scum||

    They really are.

  • Atlasgolf||

    And they smell really bad.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Britches hates everyone, I doubt he singling out children.

  • ||

    I wouldn't trust any of those outfits if they said the sky was often blue.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Oh, look. The straws are killing the cute little sea turtles! So awful!

    I'll take two straws, please.

  • Rebel Scum||

    bill that would ban the distribution of plastic straws in the state.

    #FreeCountry

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    But I think we can all agree that fewer people on the planet would be better, so the point still stands.

  • Atlasgolf||

    Depends on who you decide to get rid of.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    If by people you mean journalists I can agree.

  • Mark22||

    So what are you waiting for? Jump off a cliff already.

  • Cyto||

    since nobody has bothered to underline the joke, i'll do it. 500 million straws per day would be 2 straws per day for every man, woman and child in the united states, excluding infants. that seems a little high. like 'laugh out loud' high, in truth.

  • caseym54||

    But these adherents to "Critical Theory" can't think critically.

    Two straws per week would seem high, actually. But of course the advocate discounts his/her own straw use because they're woke.

  • Mark22||

    But these adherents to "Critical Theory" can't think critically.

    Critical theory isn't about thinking, it is about criticizing and feeling.

  • Mark22||

    i'll do it. 500 million straws per day would be 2 straws per day for every man, woman and child in the united states, excluding infants. that seems a little high. like 'laugh out loud' high, in truth.

    It doesn't seem high to a kid in a single parent household who gets a straw with each of the two Happy Meals he has to live on each and every day.

  • MikeP2||

    It's probably a high number, but not excessively so.

    2straws/day for everyone, doesn't mean they actually used them. how many straws are wasted in restaurants and cafeterias when a waitperson grabs a handful and trashes the unused?

    but its all besides the point. the real question is "who cares?"...they are environmentally irrelevant. Just because a Darwinian-challenged sea turtle ate one once and died doesn't make it a crisis.

  • Jujucat||

    I like to use several straws per drink just in case.

  • Atlasgolf||

    I'm not the problem, I've been using the same straw since 2006. It in my glove box with the napkin I've used since last summer.

  • IceTrey||

    Since straws can be glass or metal and napkins can be cloth that's not really so far fetched.

  • Jujucat||

    Since straws can be cloth and napkins can be glass or metal that's not really so far fetched.

  • Longtobefree||

    Why do you hate children so?
    He was sincere in his wild ass guessing, so we should respect the little bastard and keep on pressing 'settled science'.

  • Longtobefree||

    Let me guess - you teach English sentence structure, and math?

  • Dalyn||

    I think it's interesting how easily the masses have been convinced about social issues with emotion rather than facts, the latest of which is immigration/immigrants.

  • Mark22||

    98% of straw scientists agree: this is settled science.

  • HeteroPatriarch||

    That's 1% more settled than global warming!

  • IceTrey||

    My question is where in thevUS are you allowed to dump trash in the ocean? Who is dumping all this trash in the ocean? Why aren't they being stopped by the UN?

  • Longtobefree||

    Nowhere
    Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi
    The UN is toothless and corrupt organization.

  • MikeP2||

    There was an underpublished report out a few weeks ago that claimed 99% of the world's oceans plastic pollution comes from just 10 rivers. and none of them are in NA.

  • p3orion||

    But we have to stop our straw usage so that we can, I dunno, set a good example? Doinfg something that will have any effect on the actual problem (if there even is one) is secondary. You know, like the Paris Climate Accords.

  • Eman||

    Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but the title seems to kind of be suggesting that we should ignore the "research" because of who did it, but in this case maybe that's true. Kids are pretty dumb.

  • HeteroPatriarch||

    You're reading too much into it. It's a suggestion that media, especially those outlets that bill themselves as "Major" media outlets, should perform more in the way of due diligence than "We heard this statistic that's a big scary number." And the

  • HeteroPatriarch||

    point is that journalists are pretty dumb.

  • flyfishnevada||

    Dumb or willfully ignorant...or both.

  • Leader Desslok||

    Pretty sure it's both.

  • p3orion||

    I've yet to hear what grade he got on his "research" project...

  • Jujucat||

    Kid's career as a statistician is already off to a great start.

  • Jujucat||

    Kids are missing important data and are therefore mentally deficient.

  • flyfishnevada||

    So, they want us to use paper straws like in kindergarten? What is this, the dark ages? Paper straws are barbaric. This is proof communism doesn't work. What's next? Rotary telephones? Vinyl seats in cars? Orange shag carpeting and "matching" avocado appliances in the kitchen? This is madness.

  • Ron||

    avacado is coming back but with more expensive materials

  • Ralph Gizzip||

    When you consider most people in the media have the intelligence of a 9-yo it all makes perfect sense.

  • Ride 'Em||

    Statistics used for political purposes not because they are right but because they incite.

  • Sevo||

    "Statistics used for political purposes not because they are right but because they incite."

    "20% of the American public is starving!"

  • Ron||

    please provide link to kids documentation or else Reason is Fake news we have to fight fake news with documentable facts. of course the other side rarely believes in fact when they disagree with the outcome

  • NoVaNick||

    I live not too far from this school and neighborhood in Alexandria-its a little slice of the Bay Area in the views of most of the residents-lots of those"Science is Real", "Love is Love", "Women are People" blah blah signs in front yards. Kids try to please their parents and teachers after all, so I'm not surprised by this "study". BUT, my own two kids, and many others really love straws, in fact, my youngest will only drink with one, so we always have a huge box of them.

    Why is it that just when I thought progs could be more retarded, they surprise me?

  • Jujucat||

    Fact checking consisted of... "Well, we DO use a lot of straws... Sounds right!"

  • Jujucat||

    I like to use $100 bills.

  • Liberty Lover||

    The 9 year old is probably a lot more accurate than the latest political polls.

  • Kelly H||

    First- you imply this 9 year old DID faulty research. I assume he/she came up with this for a science project& a teacher graded the work. 2nd-Is it REALLY shocking that Americans use 1.6 straws per person per day? Have you BEEN to America? 3rd- I just watched a research vessel, next to a Plastic Straw, tampon tube, chopstick, water bottle &dirtydiaper; ISLAND- floating in the Pacific. The cesspool of plastic is bigger than MEXICO. UV causes it to crumble to the size of rice& it floats on the surface. Pastic plankton' is eaten by fish who feed on the surface, then return to the depths.Except buoyant plastic filled fish can't dive. Big fish eat the floating fish, we eat those bigger fish & It doesn't take a rocket scientist-just an average 5th grader- to understand it.Please, Stop complaining about facts & go buy a stainless steel straw (reignite our STEEL industry!) Our Oceans have a plastic problem CAUSED by nasty, self-absorbed, wasteful humans. Thank GOD for a 9-year-old- who was wiser and more concerned than the adult calling FACTS- fake news. Because the facts are so easy to check? A 9-year-old did it.

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