This afternoon on Radio 1, DJ Scott Mills introduced today's Big Fact Hunt' competition. The idea for the competition is very simple, 'Chappers' (a newsreader) gives a fact which listeners must search for, with the quickest answer winning a radio 1 mousemat. My dad, who works as an ICT co-ordinator in a primary school, has been doing something similar for a while by setting a 'Google quiz' to get the kids used to using search engines. The Radio 1 competition doesn't use Google though but a specially skinned version of their own search service.
The competition task today was to find the percentage of the Russian Government's income that comes from the tax on vodka. I found the answer easy enough, just type in a few of those words and you'll get the answer of ten percent. However, I was a bit suspiscious as the answer I found came from a page of 'intereresting facts'. So I did a bit of searching and found that this 'fact' is quoted all over the internet, with 270 results for the phrase 'ten percent of the Russian government's income comes from the sale of vodka'! Almost all of these are just a single line on a list of 'useless' or 'interesting' facts, which also include such dubious items such as:
- 'The cigarette lighter was invented before the match', 861 results (even the bbc lists this one). It's obviously not true. The match was invented in around 1827, the first Zippo lighters were sold in 1932, while Ronson lighters were first sold in 1913
- 'A duck's quack doesn't echo, and no one knows why', 1,622 results. Clearly rubbish, all sound waves can echo, depending on surroundings. A duck quack is just quiet.
- 'Right-handed people live, on average, nine years longer than left-handed people', 870 results. This potentally scary-sounding statistic (if you're left handed) originates from a study, also quoted by BBC news, by Stanley Coren, who looked at the 'handed-ness' and age of a sample of people who had recently died and noted a slight correlation. Aside from the typical question over the reliability of samples, the research was skewed by the fact that there are less left-handers in the older generation as many were forced to switch hands. A more recent, serious study for the British Medical Journal found no significant correlation, except where unnatural deaths through warfare were considered, where a bias in equipment and training may help to explain a slightly higher death rate for left-handers.
In short, dear old Chappers must have searched for 'facts' and gone from there rather than thinking up a fact and then checking to see if it could be found.
Back to our original question, does the Russian government really earn 10 percent of its income from the tax in vodka? Well, I couldn't prove the answer either way, with not being able to read Russian not helping. However, it would seem quite unlikely, even with an 80% tax on vodka (which there has been in the past) and an obvious popularity of the drink. If anyone can prove it wrong though, please leave a comment below.
I think a lesson in the use of the internet to verify information is in order for Chappers...