Saturday February 25, 2006
Okay, here’s an idea: let’s see if we can gather experimental evidence to assess our prejudices. First up, prejudice number one. “Sometimes you see beautiful people with no brains. Sometimes you have ugly people who are intelligent, like scientists. Our pitch is a bit like that. From the top it’s a disgrace, but the ball rolls at normal speed.”
So said Jose Mourinho this week. Who, you may ask, is Jose Nourinho? I had no idea, but according to Dr Katy Turner, an infectious diseases epidemiologist who sent in the quote along with a photograph of herself, he is something to do with football, which explains why, after the bit about girls, the quote degenerates into incomprehensibility.
Now, Dr Katy Turner and her friends are actually quite fit – the glamorous Ms Bad Science notwithstanding – but they, as any scientist could tell you, were a selected and biased sample. In search of population data, I went straight to www.amihotornot.com and set to work. For anyone with a life, Am I Hot Or Not is an extraordinary and untapped mine of self-generating attractiveness data that could easily fuel five social psychology papers in return for one good week’s work.
The premise is this: you see a picture of a boy or girl, you click to give it a mark out of 10, and then you get to see the next picture. It’s strangely addictive, and second only to the dizzying www.ratemypoo.com for interactive image rating pleasure. The marks are collected and pooled, and eventually, we might assume, settle down to a representative population judgment on the individual’s overall attractiveness.
Here’s the important bit. Amihotornot started out as an exercise in narcissism, but now (inevitably) it has a dating element. For that, they’ve added in the facility for people to list their interests. This means you can now also search by interest. And so, dear reader, I have made for you three links, to images of people listing science, sport, and Jesus as their interests, for you to see for yourself:
My grand plan was this: to collect hundreds of scores from the science, sports, and Jesus people; then stick them into a stats program; and then see if there was a statistically significant difference between the attractiveness scores for each group.
But my experimental aspirations were torpedoed when I discovered that the attractiveness scores are blanked out when you search by keyword. I have no idea why, but this sort of problem often occurs when you try to crowbar population datasets into purposes for which they were not originally devised.
Then I had a thought: it’s not like I’m a noble undercover epidemiologist, trying to steal factory records on asbestos exposure from companies who don’t want me to show they cause cancer. Why don’t I just email Amihotornot HQ? So I did.
But they haven’t got back to me. I think they’ve just assumed I’m some kind of weirdo.
And here is prejudice number two: British newspapers just cannot help themselves, they have to run stories which say that miracle cures work, regardless of the evidence. In January, the journal Cancer (cheery) ran a paper on the survival of patients with proven, very bad, lung cancer, who had been given palliative radiotherapy, not to cure, but just to ease the symptoms a little: they found, perhaps unexpectedly, that about 1% survived for five years, when you’d have thought all would be dead by then. That’s what they found.
The study also, briefly, at the end, said this: “This is a very small proportion, but lung cancer is a very common malignancy. It is important that the frequency of this phenomenon should be appreciated, so that claims of apparent cure by novel treatment strategies, or even by unconventional medicine or faith healing, can be seen in an appropriate context.”
In the Independent newspaper, this research paper became: “MIRACLE CURES SHOWN TO WORK: Doctors have found statistical evidence that alternative treatments such as special diets, herbal potions and faith healing can cure apparently terminal illness, but they remain unsure about the reasons.” No. I have no idea either.
Â· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
[Addendum 7/3/06: The Independent had run a correction to their Miracle Cures story, four weeks after it originally ran, on 17/2/06: the Miracle Cures article, and that correction, have been deleted from their website. It said that the erroneous content was due to a "production error".]