All entries for Monday 15 June 2009

June 15, 2009

The Internet Ranter's Worst Enemy – Fact Checking

I recently encountered a ranting gentleman on the internet who seemed most vexed by his apparent and sincere belief that Britain was “officially the most crowded country in Europe”. It vexed me because what sources had told him this officially? So I did what seemed reasonable, I went to that great underused resource, The CIA Factbook. I like the CIA Factbook. Whatever you think about what their dodgier operatives get up to in secret rendition spots, the CIA make a damn good Factbook.

The Factbook told me that Britain has a population density of about 250 people per square km. That sounds like… well, it sounds like a number. There’s almost certainly many more than 250 people in the square km around me. I can see a couple as I write. They are running away from the hailstones.

As I read this I wondered about the rest of Europe. Specifically my instincts drew me to the Netherlands. I had a gut feeling. So I did the sums with the Factbook and the Dutch population per square km is… 402. Now I don’t know about you, but that seems to be higher than the UK’s. Quite a lot higher. About 50% higher some might say.

Maybe the ranting man on the internet was right and Britain is Europe’s most crowded country and the Netherlands has been evicted from Europe! I have to admit, I missed that bit of the news. Or maybe Mr Ranty Man was, y’know, wrong?

He also ranted about how the Scottish parliament’s ability to set better healthcare conditions in Scotland was a symptom of an apartheid against the English because they were being denied devolution, so I suspect his logic was not the most sound. I don’t think he was too pleased when I pointed out that the English were offered some devolution in 2004 but the initial referendum in the NE returned a 77% No vote. Whilst that devolution wasn’t what even devolution proponents wanted, there’s no ambiguity in No, governments just assume it’s a total No, even when, as was the case, they actually want English devolution.1

Lots of people rant on the internet using ‘facts’ and stories which don’t actually tally to that dreaded entity Real Life. I was reminded, when talking to this ranter, of every paranoid Christian loon’s2 favourite perceived attack on Christmas, Birmingham’s Winterval which supposedly constituted an attempt to make Christmas non-Christian but actually was no such thing at all. It was a marketing campaign running across the whole of winter, aimed at getting people to visit. The Christian element was as prominent as you’d expect from the nation’s biggest religious festival and the organisers remain pissed off about being misrepresented to this day.

Perhaps we live in an age where facts aren’t encouraged. I suspect this to be the case, every hysterical hearsay is given a special weight on the internet and in ‘Speak Your Brains’ obsessed media. With a History background this appals me a little, as checking to see what you’re writing is true is really rather sensible and the best way to get a History degree.

It’s nice to pick people you don’t agree with apart using pedantry, but it can reduce the argument to an exercise in humiliation which will not win converts. I’m happy to listen to people I disagree with if they’ve got their facts right.

I suspect I shouldn’t be arguing on the internet.

1 The other interesting angle on this is that the Irish were offered a form of government in 1921 which they weren’t really so keen on (still kow towing to the King being part of it) but they worked within the system to change it.
2 Not to be confused with normal, non-ranting Christians.


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