The problem with hand-me-down facts

Earlier today I read a nice post by UNC Sociologist and Family Inequality blogger Philip N. Cohen.  The post, Stop that feminist viral statistic meme,  traced a popular feminism meme down to its source.

If you don’t feel like clicking, here is the gist of the meme from Cohen’s post

“While women represent half the global population and one-third of the labor force, they receive only one-tenth of the world income and own less than one percent of world property. They are also responsible fortwo-thirds of all working hours.”

How is it that a 40 year old fact based on a mostly absent methodology gets cited over and over again?

The issue that this brings up is not really about a single flawed methodology (I’ll leave the methodological criticism to someone with more content knowledge).  The issue is that you can only critique a methodology you can see.   This meme has become detached from the methodology used for its creation.

So many expert organizations and individuals have presented this meme that they have become sources, if any source at all is attributed.  The methodological roots on the other hand have been obscured by the constant hand-me-downs.

This isn’t a telephone game example, the “fact” stayed pretty true to its original form.  But any debate over the legitimacy of the data becomes lost in history.

This is not a web issue, the meme became detached before the web came into popular existence.  But in today’s web, so many are searching for “facts” that underly popular beliefs that these “facts” often act as a base for infographics and videos which continue the detachment.

Today, one week after the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, let’s remember to keep a critical eye.  Even if the thing we are critiquing is something that supports a notion we believe in wholeheartedly.