I have many pet peeves. I am a practiced peever of perversely perfervid proportions. Cases in point: the inane articles often published under the “Well” or “Self-Care” rubrics in The New York Times.
“Should You Get a Microbiome Test?” “Is ‘Lettuce Water’ Really the Sleep Aid of Your Dreams?” “Is Air a Scam?” The list of dubious queries — almost all of which can be brusquely answered, “Of course not!”; “Hell, no!”; or “Who in tarnation cares?” — are as prodigal as the seed of Abraham.
The Times is not the only offender. “Have we been doing self-care all wrong?” The Washington Post recently inquired. “Will Trump’s Media Startup Pay Off?” asks The Wall Street Journal. “Can chemical computing in a test tube replace your PC?” the Globe inquires. Probable answers? See above.
This vast field of bushwa is (loosely) governed by Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, named after British technology journalist Ian Betteridge. In 2009, Betteridge wrote: “My maxim [is] that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’ The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably [nonsense], and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.”
In a word: Yes.
Conveniently for my purposes, Betteridge’s Law, whose enforcement power can be likened to the “Pirate’s Code” (“more like a set of guidelines”) from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, has spurred considerable academic debate. For instance, in the field of particle physics there is a corollary known as Hinchliffe’s Rule, named after Ian Hinchliffe. He famously remarked that “if the title of a scholarly article is a yes–no question, the answer is ‘no.’ ”
Scientists have had considerable fun at Mr. Hinchliffe’s expense. “Is This Article Consistent with Hinchliffe’s Rule?” Harvard computer science professor Stuart Shieber asked in a 2015 edition of The Annals of Improbable Research. Shieber’s answer: No, thus yes. “In either case, we have a contradiction, and Hinchliffe’s rule leads to a paradox,” he confoundingly “explains.”
Earlier this year, Professor Brian Poole of AKFA University in Uzbekistan explored Betteridge’s, um, guidelines in “Should we regard question-based media headlines as clickbait?,” a clickbaity kind of article for “English Today.” Poole pointed out that several types of query headlines, for instance, “Which Americans Will Get the COVID Vaccine First?” or an article about an oversize metal sculpture ― “Monolith or just trash?” — cannot be answered yes or no, and thus evade Betteridge’s jurisdiction.
“Betteridge’s Law is not really of value,” Poole concludes. Or is it? Many of his examples buttress Betteridge, to say the least. Poole dismisses “Is Queen Elizabeth an extraterrestrial reptile?” as clickbait, but that’s exactly the point Betteridge was making in his 2009 critique. Journalists persist in posing non-questions — even the august New Yorker (“Is Amazon Changing the Novel?”) plays this game — as traps for unwary readers.
Betteridge — “Yes, THAT Betteridge,” he explains in his Twitter mini-biography — is very much alive and kicking. He still works in technology (“I run the content side of a lot of websites”) and occasionally contributes to his Technovia blog.
“Do you wear your fame lightly, or has the intergalactic acclaim gone to your head?” I asked him via e-mail. “Obviously as I’m British there’s a combination of pride and vague embarrassment!” he replied.
“Will Readers Stick with a Column About ‘Betteridge’s Law’ Until the Very End?” QED, or thank you for reading.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.