The New York Times just put out a story titled “Overdose Deaths Exceeded Half a Million in 2014”. As so very often on reading something in the Times, I said to myself “that’s wrong.” Because it had to be wrong – off the top of my head I knew that less than three million died from any reason each year in the US: pop of ~300 million, three score and ten, population growth, QED. No way that big a fraction died from overdoses, and of course it was wrong: the real number is something like 50k, mostly prescription drugs.
Nobody at the Times noticed it at first. I don’t know that they ever did notice it by themselves- likely some reader brought it to their attention. But this happens all the time, because very few people have a picture of the world in their head that includes any numbers. Mostly they don’t even have a rough idea of relative size.
In much the same way, back in the 1980s,lots of writers were talking about 90,000 women a year dying of anorexia nervosa, another impossible number. Then there was the great scare about 1,000,000 kids being kidnapped in the US each year – also impossible and wrong. Practically all the talking classes bought into it.
You might think that the people at the top are different – but with a few exceptions, they’re just as clueless.
I’m not even counting all the falsehoods that you’re supposed to believe in.