Subject: Factoids/Innumeracy
From: John Gear <catalyst -at- PACIFIER -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 12 May 1995 09:58:00 PDT

Someone quoted:

> I infer that a factoid must be as or like a fact but not a fact! The
> > only thing that I can think of that is as or like a fact but not a
> > fact is a plausible lie.

In media criticism and analysis "factoid" is used to refer to that most
dangerous of infobits, the fact out of context, usually used to mislead
the reader/listener (intentionally or by simply following the dominant

Factoid Example: The government subsidy per passenger-mile travelled is
less for automobiles than for any other form of transportation.

Context: By destroying alternative forms of transit (such as GM buying and
ripping up trolley systems in a number of metro areas) the automobile
industry has made it difficult to impossible to get around without a car
outside of a very few urban centers that were formed before the auto took

Thus, essentially all adults in the US must drive, driving up the
passenger-miles figure while, at the same time, being unable to use other
forms and "vote" by logging their miles on those forms. Thus, positive

AAA and Exxon say "See, cars need less subsidy than those other forms of
transportation. More for highways! Less for Amtrak!"

Anyone looking for a great, enjoyable course on factoids (which are often
expressed in numbers) would enjoy John Allen Paulos' short and intelligent
book called "Innumeracy." It's an especially useful book for technical
communicators who write reports or risk assessments.

(Factoids usually show up disguised as statistics because people selling BS
know that most people in the US mentally skip over numbers, never
questioning them but absorbing the "truth" they leave behind. There's a
reason that four out of five advertisers use factoids like that one.)
John Gear (catalyst -at- pacifier -dot- com)

"It is impossible to dissociate language from science or science from
language.... To call forth a concept, a word is needed; to portray a
phenomena [sic], a concept is needed. All three mirror one and the same
reality." -- Lavoisier

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