Nov. 1, 2009 -- I must admit I read tabloid headlines while in line at supermarkets.
Often the headlines and stories are true enough in a literal sense, but seriously misleading. In this regard they're not always that different from some cable or mainstream media stories.
In any case, here are five possible tabloid stories followed by five brief explanations. You might want to figure out your own explanations before reading the ones here.
Can You Spot the Misleading Headlines?
1. Thousands to Die After Swine Flu Vaccination
Many public health authorities privately fear that there will be many heart attacks among older people and miscarriages among pregnant women occurring soon after these people are inoculated with the H1N1 vaccine.
In fact, they expect there to be thousands of cases of this sad combination of events. Autism activists may take this as further reason to skip not just the H1H1 vaccine, but other childhood immunizations.
2. New Birther Claims About Obama Well-Documented
A new birther group has come up with incontrovertible evidence that President Obama was, in fact, born overseas and not in the contiguous United States. The documentation this time is rock solid, and there are reports that Obama himself has privately acknowledged the group's claim.
3. Otherworldly Properties of Metal Found at Roswell
A new discovery was announced recently in Roswell, N.M., an area believed by many to have been the site where an alien spacecraft crashed in 1947. A strange piece of metal found there has been subjected to exactingly precise measurements and has been found to have a quite amazing property.
It exerts a minuscule physical attraction on every information-processing instrument so far tested, and, within experimental error, this attraction is nine times as strong 1 foot away from the metal as it is 1 yard away.
Many wonder what to make of the fragment's seeming resonance with our system of measurement, but it can't be easily denied.
4. Math Formula Links Your Social Security Number to Your Age
Mathematicians have devised a simple formula linking your social security number's first digit and your age, and the startling connection holds only for this year. The Social Security Administration has not commented on what looks to be yet another path to identity theft.
Check it out yourself by doing the following elementary calculations. a.) What is the first digit of your social security number. b.) Multiply this number by 2. c.) Add 5. d.) Multiply it by 50. e.) If you have already had your birthday this year add 1759, and if you haven't, add 1758. f.) Now subtract the four-digit year that you were born.
You should have a three-digit number whose first digit should be the first digit of your social security number, and whose next two digits are your age. And, as mentioned, 2009 is the only year this will ever work.
5. Roswell UFOs Foretold in Bible
Researchers have found that embedded in the Bible are equidistant letter sequences (ELSs) spelling out the words "Roswell" and "UFO." That is, within the Bible, there is a sequence of letters, each letter separated from the next letter in the sequence by a fixed number of other letters that spells out these words.
These sequences come from the second part of the following line of Genesis 31:28: "And hast not suffered me to kiss my sons and my daughters? Thou hast now done foolishly in so doing."
For "Roswell" start with the bolded R, move ahead three letters to the O, and continue. For "UFO," start with the u and move ahead eleven letters, and continue. "daughteRs? thOu haSt noW donEfooLishLy in so doing." How unlikely is this?
Check Your Answers Against the Explanations
1. The claims in this story are entirely true, but shouldn't be surprising or alarming. Annually there are approximately 1 million heart attacks and 1 million miscarriages in this country. Let's assume there will be 100 million or more people inoculated against the H1N1 flu over a six-month period.
Then, since there are almost 3,000 heart attacks and 3,000 miscarriages daily and there will be at least 200 times that many flu shots daily, it is a certainty that there will be very many people who will have a heart attack or miscarriage shortly after receiving the shot.
How many and how soon depends on further assumptions, but nobody should attribute the medical crises to the shots unless there's real evidence.
Watch Out for Nonsense in the News
2. The mistake here is, for most people, quite obvious. President Obama was born in Hawaii, which is overseas, although not over the seas that might be suggested. Moreover, he was not born in the contiguous United States, but many people may not know the meaning of the word "contiguous."
Likewise, many don't realize that the claim that there are UFOs is a true and uncontroversial one simply because UFO is an acronym for unidentified flying object, of which there are many. That they're spaceships manned by extraterrestrial aliens is what there is no reason to believe.
3. Any two objects attract each other with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, which explains the attraction differential between a foot and a yard (i.e., between 1 and 3). This is simply Newton's law of gravitation, and its relevance is on a par with other laughable "evidence" from Roswell.
4. Let x be the first digit of your social security number. Then doubling gives you 2x, adding 5 gives you 2x+5, multiplying by 50 gives you 50(2x+5) or 100x+250, and then adding 1759 yields 100x+2009. If you subtract the year you're born from 100x+2009, you get a three digit number, 100x+your age, the hundreds digit being x, the first digit of your social security number and the last two being your age. Same with 1758 if your birthday this year hasn't occurred.
The connection holds, no matter what your first social security digit is and offers no new path to identity theft.
5. Although the language isn't Hebrew and the associations aren't religious, this example refers to the infamously fraudulent Bible codes. These and many other ELSs are present in the Bible (the one quoted above was discovered by debunker Dave Thomas) and any particular one of them has a minuscule probability of appearing in any particular place.
The right question, however, is not "How unlikely is it that a particular sequence occurs at a particular point." Rather it is, "How unlikely is it that something vaguely suggestive or meaningful appears somewhere," and the answer to the latter question is that it is quite likely.
If one looks hard and long enough, one will discover many, many such seemingly significant ELSs, not only in the Bible but in "Moby Dick," "War and Peace," and even Harry Potter books.
Don't forget to inoculate yourself against the flu and, as much as possible, against nonsense as well.
John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University in Philadelphia, is the author of the best-sellers, "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as (just out in paperback) "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNews.com appears the first weekend of every month.