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The Great Cabbage MythMoray Jones
I have to set the record straight. Last month I quoted from Parish Pump a list of the number of words in various items ranging from the Lords Prayer to the EU regulations on cabbages. This sparked much discussion on facebook and resulted in this article from a reader which looks more seriously at the question of false news.
26,911 words ‑ the numbers don't lie. Or do they?
Last month this magazine published a snippet claiming that there are only 66 words in the Lord's Prayer and yet it takes the EU 26,911 to regulate the sale of a cabbage.
So surely that figure must be true. Look at its precision, look at its oddness. This can't be a number plucked out of thin air. Surely someone would have checked it.
They have ‑ and it's not true.
That number of words was originally ascribed to the US regulations regarding cabbages and, even then, the figure was probably made up. The EU doesn't have any regulations specifically on the sale of cabbages (you can read the full history and explanation here [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine‑35962999])
So the Parish Magazine unwittingly steps into the field of fake news. That barrage of news stories that get passed from person to person that back up our beliefs and prejudices with little or no basis in fact.
They are usually entertaining or just feel right, with nice solid numbers or attribution to someone we trust or respect. They can easily be ingested without raising our critical defences and have existed since long before the internet came along.
So what can we do about it and do we care?
If I think the EU is an over‑reaching bureaucratic machine, surely it doesn't do any harm to illustrate it with something untrue? After all if I believe that it is true then even if my fact may be wrong, I'm sure there's other similar facts that would bear it out...
But facts aren't parables or illustrations of some fundamental truth while not true themselves. Facts are supposed to be literal truths.
And we are each the ones responsible for checking our facts because other people look up to us or to our magazine or our news service or wherever we repeat unchecked stories.
We are all fallible and we all get caught out, but we should always strive to be better.
The easiest way to check something these days is to google it. Type in some key words in the search box at www.google.com In this case just typing in the number 26,911 will bring you up the BBC story called 'The Great Cabbage Myth', second in the listings, and the Snopes article 'Cabbage Memo' in third place.
Snopes (www.snopes.com) is a great place to check for the truth of stories as they do fact checking on a lot of current stories and have an archive of old stories. It's an education in itself seeing how myths can develop.
And now I think about it, how many words are there actually in the Lord's Prayer......?