Today in delancyplace comes a lesson on the spread and persistence of erroneous information. It's an excerpt from Samuel Arbesman's book "The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date" that features Popeye. Yes, the cartoon sailor man who kept getting into trouble, then downing a can of spinach to give him jolt of super strength:
"I'm strong to the finish 'cause I eat my spinach... I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!"
Popeye's spinach habit can be traced to an data recording error in 1870 by Erich von Wolf, a German chemist. Von Wolf measured the amount of iron in spinach, but, when transcribing his data he accidentally misplaced a decimal point, raising the iron content in spinach by an order of magnitude.
"Once this incorrect number was printed, spinach's nutritional value became legendary. So when Popeye was created, studio executives recommended he eat spinach for his strength, due to its vaunted health properties. Apparently Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third!"
"Ultimately, the reason these [types of] errors spread is because it's a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact."
So, Popeye provides a double lesson for public relations measurement practitioners. First, check your work carefully. Second, don't believe everything you read.
And if you'd like some more Popeye, here's a cartoon episode in which Popeye and Bluto are partners in a moving company:
-- Bill Paarlberg, editor