Americans are said to use 500 million plastic straws each cay.
Where did the 500 million estimate come from? Someone named Milo Cress who did a telephone survey – when he was nine years old in 2011.
This is the source of the estimate, now quoted by politicians, the media, the National Park Service and the National Restaurant Association. (Since then, others have created estimates of 170 to 390 million per day.)
A lot of people accept this number without realizing it means roughly everyone in the U.S. uses two straws every day, which seems unlikely.
Making an assertion about something – in this case, 500M straws per day – is easy to do. As you may know, the root of “number” is “numb” and many brains go numb at the sight of a number. Propagandists like numbers – because no matter how off the wall they may be – numbers give the message greater authority.
The 500 million per day number’s provenance is poor yet was widely cited by those viewed as “authorities” illustrating how a nearly made up number can be translated into an authoritative fact. Thereafter, it is used in an “Appeal to authority” argument by citing the intermediate “authorities” who never checked the original source.
Since then, the argument about straws was “personalized” through the use of a single sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, as the image of a new movement to ban straws.
Consequently, we might be manipulated into decisions on the use of plastic straws based on potential misunderstandings that inflate the problem, coupled with an appeal to emotions.
This post is not about whether or not straws should be banned but is about how poorly sourced information is often unchecked and then becomes the basis of public policy. Poorly sourced data and personalization are commonly used in propaganda messaging. We often make decisions after we have been manipulated, particularly when our emotions are targeted (i.e. the sea turtle).