Betteridge's law of headlines
Betteridge's law of headlines is an adage that states: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." It is named after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist who wrote about it in 2009, although the principle is much older. As with similar "laws" (e.g., Murphy's law), it is intended to be humorous rather than the literal truth.
The maxim has been cited by other names since as early as 1991, when a published compilation of Murphy's Law variants called it "Davis's law", a name that also crops up online, without any explanation of who Davis was. It has also been called just the "journalistic principle", and in 2007 was referred to in commentary as "an old truism among journalists".
Ian Betteridge's name became associated with the concept after he discussed it in a February 2009 article, which examined a previous TechCrunch article that carried the headline "Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data to the RIAA?":
This story is a great demonstration of my maxim 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 bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.
A similar observation was made by British newspaper editor Andrew Marr in his 2004 book My Trade, among Marr's suggestions for how a reader should interpret newspaper articles:
If the headline asks a question, try answering 'no'. Is This the True Face of Britain's Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn't have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means 'don't bother reading this bit'.
In the field of particle physics, the concept is known as Hinchliffe's Rule, after physicist Ian Hinchliffe, who stated that if a research paper's title is in the form of a yes–no question, the answer to that question will be "no". The adage led into a humorous attempt at a liar's paradox by a pseudonymous 1988 paper which bore the title "Is Hinchliffe’s Rule True?"
However, at least one article found that the "law" does not apply in research literature.
- Betteridge, Ian (23 February 2009). "TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism". Technovia.co.uk. Archived from the original on 26 February 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
- Macalope, The (2012-08-11). "The Macalope Weekly: Pointless Exercises". Macworld. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
- Gooden, Philip (2010). Skyscrapers, Hemlines and the Eddie Murphy Rule (1st ed.), Ch. 3
- Bloch, Arthur. The Complete Murphy's Law: A Definitive Collection. Rev. ed. Los Angeles, Calif.: Price Stern Sloan, 1991. Accessed September 25, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=tph7EdvSa0EC.
- "List of variants of Murphy's Law". Retrieved 2012-11-08.
- Liberman, Mark (2006-09-17). "Language Log: Davis Law". Itre.cis.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
- "Murphy's Laws: Journalistic Principle". Murphyslaws.net. 1997. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
- ""It's an old truism among journalists ..." 2007". Meatrobot.org.uk. 2007-12-04. Retrieved 2012-11-08.. The reference is to a post in the comment section of the blog DC's Improbable Science, dated Nov 22, 2007.
- "Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?"
- Marr, Andrew (2004). My Trade: a short history of British journalism. London: Macmillan. p. 253. ISBN 1-4050-0536-X.
- "Guest Blogger: Joe Polchinski on the String Debates". Cosmic Variance. Discover Magazine. 7 December 2006. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- Peon, Boris (4 August 1988). "Is Hinchliffe's Rule True?". Archived from the original on 10 April 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Shieber, Stuart M. (May–June 2015). "Is This Article Consistent with Hinchliffe's Rule?" (PDF). Annals of Improbable Research. 21 (3).
- Cook, James M.; Plourde, Dawn (2016-06-25). "Do scholars follow Betteridge's Law? The use of questions in journal article titles". Scientometrics. 108 (3): 1119–1128. doi:10.1007/s11192-016-2030-2. ISSN 0138-9130.
- betteridgeslaw.com, a website that lists articles where Betteridge's law applies.
- Ian Betteridge's website
- Reddit's QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer Is No) page