That $1.3 Billion Powerball Meme Went Viral Because People Suck At Reading (And Math Too. But Mostly Reading.)

Twitter screenshot
Twitter screenshot

Unless you've been in the same mile-deep, vault-doored, and warhead fortified Alaskan bunker Blair Walsh has (hopefully) secluded himself in since Sunday evening, you've undoubtedly seen the viral meme stating that if you divided the $1.3 billion Powerball prize with the 300 million people currently living in America, you'd be able to give everyone the equivalent of an NBA lottery pick's yearly salary. Which would either effectively end poverty forever or turn America into a Chappelle Show skit.


Of course, the math here is terribly, ridiculously, and hilariously wrong, because doing this would only give people four dollars and 30 cents. Not even enough for a Baconator. (But enough for three junior bacon cheeseburgers. Am I too old to still use Wendy's Value Meal analogies to conceptualize money? Never mind. Don't answer that.)

Still, what is a very obviously wrong conclusion — and what should be a very obviously wrong conclusion to anyone past 5th grade — hasn't stopped people from sharing and agreeing with it. (And, in at least two Facebook threads I found yesterday, actually debating and arguing with people who told them the math was completely off.) Which, in turn has made more people share it as their own personal indictment on the (lack of) math skills of America's populace.

This is not untrue. The part that seems to be tripping people up is the 300 million number. They're somehow thinking that possessing $300 million — a number which is the approximate US population — means you can give 300 million people a million dollars each. (You'd actually need 300 trillion dollars to do that.) And, since the Powerball is $1.3 billion, that should be enough to give each of the 300 million Americans a million dollars four times.

This, obviously, is a lack of understanding of how numbers work. And a bit of a Hotepian understanding of logic. Only a person who gets jollies from being "woke" while the rest of us stay sleep would conclude that they — and only they — were smart enough to conclude that the Powerball prize, if allocated evenly, could make each American a millionaire. No one else saw that "easy" solution. But they did, and they went ahead and made (or shared) a meme proving it.

Thing is, while the conclusions were wrong, the math actually wasn't. They got the right answer. (Well, kinda, sorta.) They just need to move the decimal point waaaaaaaaaaaay to the left. Ultimately, what messed people up here are three things:

1. A lack of mental proofing. Even if the numbers look right at first glance, there should be an internal alarm going off saying "Wait. That doesn't make sense. That number can't be right. Something has to be wrong here."


2. Accepting something that has been published as automatically true, by virtue of it being published.

3. A mass of people accepting, repeating, and sharing something that looks true even though they haven't actually read and vetted it.


Basically, this all is a result of a lack of reading comprehension. And, it's not that people can't read. Most functional adults are at least functionally literate. It's that (many, many, many) people don't. Choosing instead to skim or just read the first and last paragraph or just read titles instead of actually reading and re-reading if what was read the first time wasn't understood. The skills that prevent something like this from going viral — the critical thinking, the natural skepticism — are developed from years of continued and willful reading. And what happened with the Powerball meme is the same thing that happens whenever a piece from The Onion is cited as fact or a person leaves an angry response to a piece they very obviously didn't take the time to actually read through.

The people who do this regularly aren't stupid. (Well, generally speaking.) They're just lazy. And they need calculators.


Brass Tacks

What are y'all going to do with all that money if you hit the jackpot? My petty levels are going through the roof. Im hiring former Devgru/ Delta operators to run security while I tour America and spend major $$$ on all my various vices. If somebody tries to question me on my habits, I am going to shut em down with the retort