Fact-checking the singularity

May 10, 2009 in Internet

This movie made the rounds last year, but now that it's resurfaced on Mashable I need to revisit the frustration it has caused me. First, here's the video in question:

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It's a tour of the "pace of progress," designed to alternatively intimidate the viewer by revealing his lack of identity and insignificance and astound the viewer with how quickly technology will become our savior/overlord (take your pick).

I find it a slick display of sensationalist statistics with lots of semantic implications and little real insight behind the graphics. Most of it hinges on innapropriate comparisons, apples to oranges and such. I'm going to go through the claims I found particularly chafing, though there are some lines which are factually correct and I'm not going to dwell on them; this list is hardly inclusive.

Claim 1: "If you're one in a million in China... there are 1,300 people just like you."

This first claim is sort of a warm up for the rest of the video. I guess it wouldn't be shocking to simply say "China has over a billion people," so the authors instead pair the claim with an archaic colloquialism and suddenly end up with a statement that makes people pay attention. And why China? Well, if you're one in a million in the US, only 300 people are just like you, and that's just not shocking enough.

Claim 2: "China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world."

This is simply false. The statement is likely based on research which demonstrates that China has 300mm English "learners." That study concludes, however, that an accurate assessment of China's English speaking population is only 10mm. To be fair, the number excludes Hong Kong and Macau, where English is prevalent. In fact, the second largest English-speaking nation is India, but with 90mm people, it is still only 1/3 of the United States' English-speaking population.

Claim 3: "The 25% of India's population with the highest IQ's is greater than the total population of the United States."

What sort of insight is this? India has 4 times as many people as the United States, so ANY quarter of their population is equal to our citizenship. That includes the bottom 25% of IQ's, the richest and poorest quartiles, the most elderly quartile, and so on. The decision to use the highest IQ quartile is purely sensationalist, and leads nicely to the next claim...

Claim 4: "Translation: India has more honors kids than America has kids."

This seems to be the headline quote from the video but, again, it's not a valid comparison. This is an attempt to link a relative statistic and an absolute one, which can only be done if an "honors kid" in India is defined by the same metric as one in the United States. If, as the video implies, the definition relies on local IQ percentiles, then that's not the case, since India's IQ levels are not the same as those in the United States. The average Indian IQ is 81; the average in the United States is 98. Using the standard IQ bell curve, this means that the average person in the United States has a higher IQ than 74% of Indians. So, yes, India has more kids in its highest 25% of IQ's than America has kids; but the implied education gap is not real.

Claim 5: "Years it took to reach a market audience of 50 million:

Radio: 38 years

TV: 13 years

Internet: 4 years

iPod: 3 years

Facebook: 2 years"

This is my personal favorite - the list blatantly disregards global population. Of course it took radio longer to reach 50 million people; there were far less people on the earth when Marconi hit the airwaves! Yes, I concede it's interesting how much faster we can reach a fixed audience now than in the past, but in order to really measure speed, the proper metric is a fixed percentage of the population. It is especially ironic because this claim comes shortly after the video announces "we are living in exponential times," though I guess they overlooked in the name of sensationalism. Though I have to wonder why "Language, fire, wheel: 1000 years" is missing from the list.

To get a sensible estimate, each figure must be adjusted by the global population at that time. Let's use Facebook as a base since it is the most recent. There are roughly 6 times as many people on earth now as there were a hundred years ago, so the years for radio should be divided by 6, and we end up with roughly 6 years to reach a relative global audience equal to Facebook's. The factor is 3x for TV, which takes 13 years to a little more than 4. I'll leave Internet and iPod alone for simplicity, though a factor slightly greater than 1 wouldn't be out of line. The final result for the number of years to reach a similar percent of the global population: Radio - 6 years; TV - 4 years; Internet - 4 years; iPod - 3 years; Facebook - 2 years.

Does the speed of communication outreach increase? yes, it does. But it sure doesn't look as impressive this way.

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