Red Letters Spelling out Fake

Confirmation Bias Shows up in Poor Math

I’m sure many of you have seen the story, the Tweet with the incredibly poor math that talked about how for his $500 million dollar campaign Mike Bloomberg could have just given every US citizen a million dollar check. (Over 300 million people).

If you haven’t, you can read about it here.

Now the problem here isn’t that someone made a math mistake. We all make math mistakes every day. It’s not even necessarily that people repeated it. Again, seeing the math mistake does actually require us to stop and think for a minute, something we know too many people on social media don’t do.

The problem is that, on one hand, the media people who’s job it is to stop and think for a minute, also simply repeated it and discussed it on air as if the math were correct, and on the second hand, many people repeated it who are good at math, but confirmation bias got in the way of their actions.

Let me explain what I think really happened, step by step.

  1. Mike Bloomberg is rich, really rich. A billionaire even.
  2. He spent a lot of money on his campaign, running ads and what not.
  3. Many people are offended, both by his trying to buy an election, and just by being rich in the first place.
  4. Because of 3, many people think Bloomberg should be forced to give people money.
  5. Someone suggests he could have just given that money to people, using terrible math to get at a $1 million per person.
  6. Yes, rich people should just give the rest of us money, SHARE!!!!
  7. Oh wait, math….

Now I’ve written many times about the danger of people sharing links without reading the post, just based on a headline. I’ve seen many a friend, and professional, share things that are completely untrue, because the headline fit their worldview. Here we have a crystal clear example of a “fact” that is not even close to being true, is demonstrably false in the tweet itself, and yet got widely shared, including by MSNBC.

All of these people have one thing in common, they wanted it to be true, so they saw it, and they believed it. They wanted to believe Mike Bloomberg could afford to give everyone in the US a million dollars (hint, he can’t) because they wish we could figure out a way to make “the rich” just give everyone money. Even Bloomberg doesn’t have that much money.

Cognitive bias is not a new problem, but it has become a more powerful problem in the social media age. Now that so many people are sharing without considering their own bias, and so may people have made themselves dependent on social media for all of their news and education, we’ve become more prone to these kinds of biased mistakes. Yes someone made a huge math mistake, a mistake that was repeated over and over again before anyone actually noticed that it’s wrong. Not just wrong, but completely butchered. This is the world we live in now. We’re not better off for it.

Take a minute and think before you share and spread falsehoods.

For the record, the next time you want to talk about how someone could just “give everyone in the US” any amount of money, I want you to stop and think about what amount of money would actually make a difference. $100, $1,000, $10,000? Now take those zeroes and add them to the end of 327 million people. That’s how much you’d have to spend.

For example–

327,000,000 people given $10 a piece = $3,270,000,000 (3.27 billion dollars)

327,000,000 people given $10,000 a piece = $3,270,000,000,000 (3.27 trillion dollars)

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