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A Majority of Gawkers are Unable to Comprehend Percentages

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There’s this post over at Gawker with the shocking headline “A Majority of Icelanders Believe in the Existence of Elves.” What is the basis for this outrageous claim? Why, this study reported on Iceland Review, of course, which found that only 8% of Icelanders believe that elves definitely exist.

I must have skipped one too many math-classes in school and missed the one about 8% constituting a majority. Even if you add the amount of people, who believe in the likelihood of elves to the ones believing they definitely exist, that still only makes 25%

Gawker must have misread, right? The following, however, is part of their direct quote:

Only 13 percent of participants in the study said it is impossible that elves exist, 19 percent found it unlikely, 37 percent said elves possibly exist, 17 percent found their existence likely and eight percent definite. Five percent did not have an opinion on the existence of elves.

What the Hell, Gawker? Didn’t you even read what you were quoting? Okay, let’s be charitable. It’s true that a majority of Icelanders (62% > 50%, see how that works?) believe the existence of elves is at the very least possible. That’s fine. So what? So do I. Since elves aren’t, to my knowledge, logically self-contradictory there is a possible world at which elves exist. It might even be very close to ours.

I don’t really understand the questionnaire placing “possibility” between “unlikelihood” and “likelihood.” Unless the likelihood of something is either zero or one, it has no bearing whatsoever on the possibility of said something. Perhaps the researchers intended “possibility” in a more colloquial sense, but if so then they can hardly lament ambiguity in their results. In any case a majority believing in the possibility (no matter the sense) of something isn’t exactly sensational.

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