Ben Goldacre vs. Clarion Communications

09/01/2007

A lovely piece in the Guardian today, although I’m going to link through to the full uncut version on badscience.net because it’s more curvacious and has a nice bounce to it:

“Jessica Alba, the film actress, has the ultimate sexy strut, according to a team of Cambridge mathematicians.”

This important study was the work of a team – apparently – headed by Professor Richard Weber of Cambridge University, and I was particularly delighted to see it finally in print since, in the name of research, I discussed the possibility of prostituting my own good reputation for this same piece of guff with the very same PR company in June.

Here was their opening email: “We are conducting a survey into the celebrity top ten sexiest walks for my client Veet (hair removal cream) and we would like to back up our survey with an equation from an expert to work out which celebrity has the sexiest walk, with theory behind it.

And there was survey data too. “We haven’t conducted the survey yet,” Kiren told me: “but we know what results we want to achieve.” That’s the spirit! “We want Beyonce to come out on top followed by other celebrities with curvy legs such as J-Lo and Kylie and celebrities like Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse to be at the bottom

Then I managed to get hold of Professor Weber at a remote location in Greece. He told me this: “The Clarion press release was not approved by me and is factually incorrect and misleading in suggesting there has been any serious attempt to do serious mathematics here. No “team of Cambridge mathematicians” has been involved. Clarion asked me to help by analysing survey data from 800 men in which they were asked to rank 10 celebrities for “sexiness of walk”. And Jessica Alba did not come top. She came 7th.”

These “cash for bad science” stories add nothing to our understanding of the world, and they do nothing to promote science. They sell products, pay money, misrepresent the very notion of doing research, and sell the idea that scientists are irrelevant boffins engaged in pointless head scratching.

And did they really get 1,000 respondents from an internal email survey? Well maybe: Clarion Communication are part of WPP, one of the world’s largest “communications services” groups. They do advertising, PR and lobbying, they have a turnover of around ¬£6 billion, and they employ 100,000 people in 100 countries. These corporations run our culture, and they riddle it with bullshit.

The thing that gets to me is the absolutely casual relationship to the truth. I wonder how the people who do this rationalise it? Do they really think it’s okay to just make up pseudo-scientific studies to get people to buy their products? Or do they think that it’s the responsibility of the press to do more work and that their job is to just get away with as much as possible…