It is often asserted that the U.S. spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined, and until today I assumed it was true. Then, in an online exchange, someone posted a link to an estimate
of the relevant figures. If correct--and it looks like an honest and reasonably accurate job--the U.S. spends on its military a little more than half as much as the rest of the world combined.
I am reminded of a similar factoid that used to be in circulation to the effect that the U.S. had (small) x% of the world population, but (large) y% of world consumption; y, if I remember correctly, was 40. That turned out to be a true statement—about the situation immediately after the end of WWII, before Europe and Japan had recovered from the devastation of the war. I have not seen that one of late, but as best I recall it was in common use twenty years or more after it ceased to be true.
Hence my title. A purported fact that is simple, memorable, and provides an argument for a position that some significant number of people want arguments for has a power almost entirely unrelated to its truth.
All of which leaves me with an image of an office somewhere, containing a hard working inventor of factoids. Being a professional, he takes all customers. For feminists, a factoid about what percentage of female college students get raped. For conservatives, the number of people who die while waiting for critical operations in Canada. For the anti-smoking lobby, the lethality of second-hand smoke.