Today, I finally caught that infographic on Internet porn facts that's been going around like a bad itch in a delicate place. I'm a bit skeptical about how accurate it is—if you scroll to the bottom you will see that the number one source is an article in the Daily Mail. But, it did make me think about how a single soundbite statistic doesn't necessarily tell you everything you need to know to understand the big picture.
Case in point, according to said infographic, Utah has the United States' highest online porn subscription rate per thousand home broadband users. My first thought: "Heh, dirty Mormons."
But wait! The fact doesn't actually tell us that the good people of Utah consume more porn than, say, Californians. It merely tells us that Utahans are more likely to pay a regular subscription for their porn. Sure, this could be an example of religious hypocrisy caught red-handed. (Ahem.) But, it might also be something far funnier: People who are so clean-cut and law-abiding that they don't even feel comfortable illegally downloading their porn. (Or, it could just be that the citizens of Utah are more likely to not be terribly Internet savvy, in which case, as a public service, I'd like to take a moment inform them all the RedTube exists.)
The point: We have a statistic. But we don't have enough information to know what that statistic really means.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.