When you first hear that 11 percent of Americans think that HTML is an STD, it sounds like Americans are hilariously dumb. HTML is a markup language for Web pages that’s been around since 1993. But if you think about it, 10 percent of people is not a lot. More than 50 percent of people in this 2012 study thought that cloud computing was negatively affected by bad weather. Perhaps more importantly, you should be wondering where the study is from and how it was conducted.
Over the last few days, journalists and bloggers have been writing about the HTML/STD study. Its big hit came in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. But until iMediaEthics and other watchdogs began poking around, no one had actually seen the study itself, and even the press release was hard to find because it hadn’t been publicly posted anywhere. It came from the public relations firm 10 Yetis, which represents Vouchercloud, a British coupon service. Now the press release and the study itself have surfaced, but the chain of events is troubling.
First of all, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, many Americans have little or no understanding of how programming works, much less what gives browsers directions about how to display Web pages. Furthermore, 10 percent of Americans probably believe pretty much anything. For example, 18 percent thought Barack Obama was Muslim in August 2010.
The popularit of the story speaks to debates about lack of fact-checking in online journalism, as everyone rushes to publish. But it also touches on an equally worrisome point: Do journalists and readers know how numbers work?
The survey polled 2,392 Americans 18 and older over the course of seven days and asked: “Please check the correct definitions of the items listed below:” The three options for “HTML” were “The main road structure in England,” “Sexually-transmitted disease,” and “Programming language used to make websites.” Seventy-nine percent of respondents got it right. Ten percent thought it was the English roads thing. That seems weirder than the STD answer, especially if you’re guessing: After all, there are a lot of STDs that start with the letter “H.”
But going back to interpreting numbers, there are other problems with this story. Leanne Thomas, a senior account executive for 10 Yetis, has given a statement to the Los Angeles Times, saying that the survey is “100% genuine” and “valid.” But it’s still unclear what the methods were for selecting the participants, and whether they are a representative sample of the U.S. population.
A majority of Americans should feel free to proceed with knowing what HTML is and having safe sex, but maybe everyone needs to bone up on basic statistics. And apparently fractions.