by Paul Bowers
The internet in general is a raging river of unmitigated bullshit. This is known. But here recently we've seen the rise of a new form of malarkey, as exemplified in this headline from yesterday's Post and Courier: "WebMD: Charleston fourth sickest city this week."
You don't have to be a doctor to realize that the article is based on a pretty shaky claim. It comes from WebMD's "Top 10 Sickest Cities" list, which the health website is apparently releasing once a week now (Charleston appeared nowhere on previous lists that were publicized in other outlets on Dec. 22 and 31). According to the P&C, the list is based on how frequently people enter flu symptoms into WebMD's Symptom Tracker — which is fine and dandy until you consider the basic scientific concept of confounding variables.
Could it be that Charlestonians simply hit a hypochondriac streak last week? Flu-like symptoms don't always mean it's the flu. Maybe people are more likely to self-diagnose when they're unable to afford a visit to a primary care doctor. Heck, maybe a bunch of grade school students in Charleston had an assignment to research the flu for a science project. There are hundreds of variables not being taken into account here.
Reports like the P&C's, based on bogus data from press releases, are to be expected. The Pew Research Center recently found that PR flacks outnumber journalists 5 to 1, so it's no surprise that already-overwhelmed reporters' inboxes are now awash in Top 10 bilge. As Harvard University's Nieman Foundation has phrased it, journalists are being hit by a "wave of bullshit data." The trend has spawned dubious but eminently clickable headlines including "Who Watches More Porn: Republicans Or Democrats?" (Buzzfeed via Pornhub), "Nation's most stressful ZIP Codes: California city makes top 10" (L.A. Times via Movoto), and "Rats! D.C. calls pest company about rodents more often than New York" (Washington Post via Orkin).
Writing for Nieman, Jacob Harris says:
To be blunt, all of these stories were unredeemably awful, riddled with errors and faulty assumptions. But accuracy wasn't the point. All of these examples of "data journalism" were generated by companies looking for coverage from online news organizations. The goal is a viral feedback loop, where the story is reaggregated by others, the site surges in its organic search rankings, and the study is tweeted for days even by haters like myself. For these purposes, they were perfectly designed to exploit the nature of modern news distribution online.
Sure, some rankings are newsworthy. Condé Nast Traveler's rankings of the top tourist cities in the world have at least a modicum of respectability since they are taken from a large poll of readers of an influential travel magazine and the publisher is fairly up-front about sample size and methodology. The survey respondents aren't randomized by any stretch of the imagination, but at least the opinion of affluent jetsetters probably carries some weight in the market of global travel destinations.
On the other hand we have lists like this one, from real estate website Movoto: "These Are The 10 Best Places To Live In South Carolina." This particular ranking didn't get a lot of press locally, but Midlands news website ColaDaily picked up the story, running the headline "Town of Lexington lands in top 10 best places to live in South Carolina." They even bothered to get a quote from the mayor of No. 6 Lexington.
We'll save you a click. Charleston is tied for second with Hilton Head behind the affluent Greenville suburb of Five Forks, and HOLY MOLY, WE BEAT MAULDIN. Strike up the band, y'all.
The rankings are based on head-scratchingly vague sub-rankings such as "Total Amenities," "Commute Time," and "Weather." No word on how these things were calculated, but mystifyingly, coastal Mt. Pleasant somehow tied with the Piedmont town of Fort Mill for the No. 1 spot in the "Weather" category. Charleston trailed behind at No. 6 in the weather rankings, while pristine Hilton Head somehow landed at No. 45. Balancing out that negative, Hilton Head gets high marks for its "sky-high" rent, which the author notes is "an indicator of desirability."
Here's another eye-roller, this time from the almost unbearably douchey self-help website Under30CEO.com: "Top 30 Best Cities for Young Entrepreneurs 2013." Charleston made No. 3 in the Small Cities category.
In this case, there's even less transparency about the methodology, aside from a brief explanation:
The below list breaks down 30 cities across the United States into three different categories based on the population of the cities. Then Under30CEO readers were asked to vote on the locations they thought were the best places for a new company to open shop based on local resources, culture, atmosphere, and overall appeal to a young twenty-something.
ABC News 4 took the bait and ran a story with no analysis of the website's claims, going with the headline "Charleston named third best city for young entrepreneurs." Yay, us!
It doesn't matter that these rankings are being churned out by a basement full of interns and have little basis in reality. The frivolous headlines keep coming, and you, gentle readers, keep clicking: "The Best Towns in South Carolina for Young Families" (NerdWallet), "Myrtle Beach and Conway rank in the top cities to retire in South Carolina" (WPDE via Movoto), "Online data analyzers flag North Charleston neighborhood as 13th most dangerous" (The Digitel via Neighborhood Scout).
Even the City Paper has been known to take the bait every once in a while. Who could resist the headline "S.C. penises are bigger than most, according to totally unscientific study"?
We sure couldn't. And neither could you.
UPDATE, JAN. 8: Better make that headline "The top 8 dumbest rankings to feature Charleston." From the P&C's homepage today: "Study: South Carolina No. 2 in nation as moving destination." The data in the cited study comes from United Van Lines, not, you know, the Census.