THIS IS AN ARTICLE about not writing an article. It started with a Vox piece about the changes in society wrought by the 2007 introduction of the iPhone. One graph that caught my eye showed chewing gum sales steadily declining from 2007 to 2017, which was when the Vox article was published.
No economist would ever tie an economic trend to any one factor, but the article proffered an interesting hypothesis. It suggested that, as more people looked at their iPhones while waiting in line at supermarkets, they were less prone to make spontaneous gum purchases at the checkout counter. Such sales are a substantial part of chewing gum sales.
I thought the connection might be the basis of an interesting article about how our time and attention are limited resources, and when we connect with one thing, we unwittingly disconnect from another. Few would lament disconnecting from chewing gum in favor of the iPhone. But what about giving up a tried-and-true investment for the latest hot one? Or how about neglecting family time to get “just one more task” done at work?
My gut saw the possible cause-and-effect connection. My heart liked the lesson that could be drawn from it. On top of all that, the article cited the generally reliable Euromonitor International as its data source.
But to quote Ronald Reagan, who was quoting the Russian proverb “doveryai, no proveryai,” it’s important to “trust, but verify.” A little digging revealed some flaws.
Aside from the probability of other contributing causes—such as the Great Recession making people cut out unnecessary purchases like chewing gum—it turns out that U.S. gum sales have been going up since the article was published, despite continued smartphone use. What’s more, there’s the issue of whether some gum chewers simply switched to a substitute good, like mints or candy. Who’s to say if people made fewer impulse purchases while looking at their iPhone or just felt like buying Tic Tacs instead?
So, that article went into the can. Still, I was left with a thought to chew on. (Had to offload that joke somehow.)
We live in an instant-access information age, perhaps too instant. We get seemingly plausible information delivered to our eyes that immediately resonates, rings true and seems to verify our outlook on life. No, this isn’t just a Fox News vs. MSNBC issue. It also crops up with “can’t lose” investments and compelling market forecasts. We get summaries that connect dots we didn’t know needed connecting. Sometimes the photograph or tale comes with citations we consider authoritative. Often the story appeals to our predisposition and we fall victim to confirmation bias. We then pass along the information as gospel truth.
If we’ve learned anything these past months, it’s that we should slow down before we become part of a chain of dubious data delivery. Of late, we’ve all heard a lot of secondhand stories. A “friend of a friend” will have made money in something with a “guaranteed high investment return.” We’re told that the government is going to close down an entire industry and we’d best get out of that market sector. The claims come with pseudo-statistics that compare apples and oranges (and leave bananas out completely).
In the online expat community, where I spend part of my time, people use social media to ask financial and legal questions about living abroad. They have no idea if the person supplying an authoritative-sounding answer is a financial analyst, a lawyer or a guy who grabbed the first thing that Google gave him. Still, the questioners take the information as fact and, worse still, pass it on to others.
We all need to get data healthy. Many already do this with food consumption, reading the labels on food packaging, asking exactly what “organic” means and dissecting how claims are hedged. (“Some studies indicate there may be a link with our product and the potential for a healthier heart.”) In the media literacy classes I used to teach to high schoolers, we’d laugh about how sugary, starchy breakfast cereals could be shown with juice and milk and then called part of a “good” breakfast. We need to do the same with the “good” data we’re offered.
If it makes no gut sense that Super Bowl wins by the AFC cause the stock market to go down, we shouldn’t buy the theory and, instead, assume it’s a coincidence. If someone shows you that shark attacks rise and fall every year commensurate with ice cream consumption, don’t blame Baskin-Robbins. Instead, consider that there might be an extraneous reason for both. Warm weather sends people both to the beach and in search of ice cream. Most important, don’t accept and blindly relay information because it has an air of “truthiness” to you. Make the idea earn your trust before you pass it on.
Which brings me to Trident gum. I dare say four out of five economists would recommend vigilance before using such data. And I never did find out why the fifth dentist wasn’t on board.
Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. Check out his previous articles. Jim is the author of Media, Marketing, and Me, about teaching behavioral economics and media literacy, as well as Summa, a children’s story for multiracial, multi-ethnic and multicultural families. Jim lives in Spain with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.