Because I Said So

Someone I follow1 on Twitter posted something a couple of weeks ago along the lines of “The retail industry loses $16B a year to people wearing and then returning clothes.” I replied with something along the lines of “That’s a great Internet number, made up and completely unverifiable.”

This led to a couple of exchanges, ending with the other person saying, “there’s a lot of dumb stuff online, but a Duke & MIT study is research driven.”

I’m going to cover the specific issues first, but then we’ll get to the bigger issue, because it speaks to how we make our way through the land mine field that is the world of information today. So, stick around, even if your eyes glaze over a bit for the next couple of minutes.

The specific issues are several:

  • The study referred to didn’t come up with the $16B number, it (mis)quoted it from another paper.
  • The second paper didn’t come up with the $16B, either. It quoted an estimate on total fraud from a third source (more on that in a moment). The estimate ($9-$17B), according to the link above, has “been updated to reflect current statistics.” I’m guessing that means the $17B on the high end used to be $16B on the high end, which means the original estimate was probably $8-$16B. (That is a bit of deductive reasoning, so it isn’t guaranteed to be true, but given the facts at hand, I think there are strong reasons to believe it is.)
  • But that estimate was for total fraud, not for “wardrobing”2 in particular. There is a chart farther down in the second paper that shows wardrobing was only 51.5% of the total. That makes the wardrobing estimate $4.1-$8.2B. ($8-16B times .515.)
  • Thus, the first paper mis-quoted the “wardrobing” number from the second paper in two ways, first by quoting only the high-end of the estimate, and second, by quoting the entire fraud amount instead of only the portion of the amount that applied to wardrobing.
  • Per the second paper, the $8B-$16B estimate came from the National Retail Federation. In other words, an industry source that has a vested interest in the number being reported. Which makes it, at best, less than reliable.
  • Finally, the estimate is too wide to be usable. If an estimate has a width of over 100%, i.e. the “to” number is more than twice the “from” number, then, in my experience, it’s unreliable. “I spend $2000-2200 a month on X” means I have a pretty good idea what I spend; “I spend $2000-4000 a month on X” means I have no idea how much I spend. A narrow range doesn’t automatically make an estimate accurate, but when a “research-driven” report makes an estimate that wide, it means they didn’t have very good information for the estimate.

But those are all facts which came to light after I made my initial statement. What made the number suspect to begin with?

Because classifying a loss as “wardrobing” is subjective — the person taking the return has to guess whether the returnee has worn the clothes or not. To get an industry estimate, then, means compiling hundreds or thousands of subjective individual estimates, each of which had different standards, different people interpreting those standards, different competence levels of the people interpreting those standards, and so forth.

In addition, the number was a flat number, not a range (which, as we’ve seen, it should have been), and for something that subjective, it’s simply impossible for a single number to be accurate. (It’s almost impossible for a single number to be accurate for something objective.)

I’ll pause here a moment to let you get up and stretch, do a few calisthenics, grab some coffee, whatever you need to wake back up.

On to the bigger issue. The above conversation falls under the logical fallacy called “appeal to authority.” In this case, because the number was quoted by a paper from “Duke & MIT,” the statement was made that we should give it the benefit of the doubt. The problem with appeal to authority, and the reason it’s classified as a logical fallacy, is that it ignores the actual facts of the argument and instead says that we should just take the word of the person making it.

However, whenever the focus is moved from the argument to the person making it, the argument of the person doing the moving is weakened. If the person making the argument says, “Hey, I’m an expert, of course this argument is right,” then they just weakened their argument. Their argument might in fact be right, but they need to argue the facts, not their alleged expertise. (I personally assume that someone that makes an appeal to authority has a weak argument, because 99.9% of the time, they do, which is why they’re appealing to authority instead of arguing the facts.)

On the other side, ad hominem attacks, i.e. attacks on the person making the argument (“that guy can’t be right, he’s just a janitor!”) automatically weaken the argument of the person making the attacks, too. Anyone that wants to switch attention away from the facts to a person is almost guaranteed not to be in command of the facts.

Even worse is when we do it to ourselves. I don’t mean when we’re making the argument (the above covers that), but when someone else is. When we do what happened in the above conversation, just automatically assume something is true because the person saying it is an “authority,” or a friend, or a pastor, we abandon our responsibility to think for ourselves.

How do we keep from falling victim to “false news,” which usually comes when we enage in some appeal to authority (it’s on Twitter, it must be true!).

  • Engage your brain when you read/listen/watch anything. We all need better BS3 sensors, and like anything else, we get better when we practice.
  • Fact check. It took me two minutes to confirm what I suspected with that $16B number. If you’re not willing to spend the small amount of time it takes to fact check what you’re taking in, then you’re saying you don’t care if you’re lied to.
  • Leave ideology out of it. If you’re a Republican, that doesn’t mean everything another Republican says is true (or that everything a Democrat says isn’t). If you’re a Democrat, that doesn’t mean everything another Democrat says is true (or that everything a Republican says isn’t). If you’re Catholic, it doesn’t mean everything another Catholic says is true. If you’re anti-DST4, it doesn’t mean everything another anti-DST'er says is true. And so on and so forth. Stop believing someone just because they (allegedly) share your ideology.
  • If you don’t know it’s true, don’t pass it on as a fact, pass it on as a theory. And if you even suspect it’s false (or not completely true), don’t pass it on at all.5
  • Use discretion, and try to be nice about it6, but don’t be afraid to call people out when you encounter clearly false information.
  • Engage your brain when you read/listen to/watch anything. Yes, I already said that. It’s here twice because it’s twice as important.

Sorry, but I gotta go. I heard Bill Gates is giving away $500 to everyone who forwards this email…

  1. Where by “follow” I don’t mean follow in Twitter terms, I mean “follow” in the sense I read his tweets. In general, I don’t “follow” people on Twitter, because it involves notifications and puts everything in one timeline and I don’t know how anyone actually makes sense of that mass of information. I use private lists that segregate the types of people I follow (friends, sports, etc.) and add people to those lists. My preferred Twitter client, Twitterific, makes it very easy to switch from list to list, unlike the native Twitter client, which would prefer you not even know lists exist. 

  2. Their word for buying clothes and then returning them after having worn them. 

  3. Baloney stuffing. 

  4. Devil’s Standard Time. 

  5. I’m sure I fall short on this at times; feel free to call me out on it. 

  6. Yes, I often fall short on this one, too. 

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