How an urban legend is born…

Some days ago, a friend of mine posted on Facebook the following:

Useless Knowledge

For those of you who do not understand German, the picture says: The emissions of the world’s 16 biggest ships, equals the combined emissions of all cars worldwide.

It took not long for some buddies to notice the post and write some first reactions. Most people did not really believe the information to be true. But that is not so much the point. Even though many questioned the presented “fact”, only few really challenged it by digging for the information behind. In fact, they might not have believed it to be true, but they did not believe it to be wrong either.

Just a simple click on the original website offered a very interesting insight. Because in the explanation on the website, the presented “fact” was only true regarding the output of sulphur oxide, meaning that the world’s largest 16 ships combined produce more sulphur oxide than the entire car traffic worldwide. The most common forms of this gas are sulphur di- and trioxide, which are highly toxic and responsibly for acid rain. They usually result from the burning of coal or heavy oil, which is used to fuel cargo ships. But, and that is the crucial point, they are no greenhouse gases.

Given the frame we are looking at, this “useless knowledge” suggests, that ships are worse for global climate change than the entire planets car traffic. Even though this is not said in the information itself, we automatically come to this conclusion when we look at the picture. Because these days climate change is a major issue, and knowing that traffic is one of the prime causes for climate change, we might think: “Could be true.”, at first.

The repost of that story by another friend took only two hours, again without questioning the fact itself. The fact itself, given the present frame of climate change, seems to be, at least, credible enough to make people accept it without further checking.

The very first comment on the website, posted by a user from the ETH Zurich, pointed out very clearly, that the “fact” was presented in a highly misleading, even deceptive way. But the question is, how many users did take the time to check the information behind? How many did even start to ask themselves, if this fact could really be true? I guess only a few did. And that is the perfect setting for an urban legend to be born. I am curious to witness the event, when, one day, one of my “offline” friends is going to tell me: “Concerning global warming, did you know that ships cause more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars worldwide combined?! And you tell me it helps to take the tram instead of going by car? It’s the ships, stupid!”

If you’re interested in the debate about climate change and how it was massively influenced and shaped by strategic communication, read our mini-series The Climate Warriors.

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