Volkswagen viral a case study in crowd-sourced BS propagation

In the past couple of days, a number of my Facebook friends have shared the video above, as posted on the Facebook page of someone I don’t know and who shall remain nameless. Here’s that person’s intro:

There is a set of stairs, with a moving escalator next to it …. both of which lead to the same spot on the floor of the upper level. At first no one took the stairs, almost 97% of the people took the escalator. Okay. I think that could be a normal expected result. Then a group of engineers got together, and decided they wanted to change the percentage around. Notice what these scientists did. Clever huh. And now they have reversed the percentages, as a whopping 66% more people take the stairs, than ride the escalator.

Notice the last sentence, particularly the last four words (and ignore the unnecessary comma). That sentence falsely oversells the story and contradicts the actual results. Because if you parse the captioning in the video itself, you’ll understand more people DIDN’T start taking the stairs than the escalator, only that more people took the stairs than before. But that’s a lot less interesting than believing that injecting a little fun into the everyday will significantly change the fundamentals of human behavior. And my guess is that everyone who is sharing this video watches it without critically examining the person’s comment. So they see the truth, but fail to understand its real meaning. 

It seems like the Internet promotes this kind of un-critical response more than other kinds of media. I think it’s pretty self-evident that nearly everyone would question this person’s conclusion if they only thought about it. Adding some fun to taking the stairs will instantly cause more people to forego the easier way—really? Does that track with what you know about yourself and human nature in general? I can think of 10 people I know who would NEVER take the stairs over the escalator under any circumstances. Further, I can think of people who would avoid these stairs expressly because of the fun element (and, no, I’m not one of them—I’d be going all Beethoven’s 9th on that mofo). 

Folks, bullshit doesn’t get spread by itself. It needs help. And by breathlessly, mindlessly spreading it, we make the ordinary seem amazing, and the truly amazing seem more ordinary.