Tesco Value Science

November 18th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, cash-for-"stories", evening standard | 50 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday November 18, 2006
The Guardian

I am going into PR: it's just too easy. Let's say you're running the account for some Tesco "sports initiative". You're doing great work for the kids, but nobody cares, because it's just another corporate wheeze. You could always pay for adverts. Or you could just find an academic cheap enough to sell you their good name, and their university's name, concoct some stupid "equation" that means nothing, and get your corporate brand in the papers.

I give you Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Lancaster, in the Evening Standard. "Psychologists claim to have developed a mathematical formula, [(V x P x R) + A] x (VFM), which allows them to grade the nation's sporting triumphs. And they have produced a highly contentious 'top 10' covering everything from England's World Cup win in 1966 to the Ashes triumph over Australia last year." Can they be serious? "The people behind the equation boast that it's 'the first ever scientific equation that reveals just how good a game of sport has been to watch'.

"No longer will spectators be left arguing over how good a game was, as the formula provides a definitive answer to any armchair or terrace debate." Sponsored by Tesco, they are eager to point out.

Ok, well let's look at that equation. Apparently V is "visual excitement", P is the "performance of the teams", R is "rules of game upheld", A is "atmosphere of game", and VFM is "value for money". Now firstly, I don't believe the great Professor Cooper of Lancaster has a meaningful, non-arbitrary way of measuring any of those terms. But more than that, it produces stupid results. A game where all the players perform abysmally and the rules of the game are openly flaunted sounds rather memorable to me. But I don't see Douglas Jardine's bodyline tour of Australia in there. Nor do I see that memorable episode where some foreign bloke did handball, if that's the correct syntax, in an important football match some time in the 80s. How many sporting moments did they run through their equation to get their top 10? How were the parameters validated? Were sporting moments blindly assessed against objective criteria by people with no prior knowledge?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Recently we have been treated to such important research work as: the formula for the perfect penalty kick, by Dr David Lewis of Liverpool John Moores, "sponsored by Ladbrokes"; the formula for the perfect way to pull a Christmas cracker by Dr Paul Stevenson of the University of Surrey, "commissioned by" Tesco; the formula for the perfect beach, by Dr Dimitrios Buhalis at the University of Surrey, "sponsored by" travel firm Opodo.

The recent "all men will have big willies" "essay" by Dr Oliver Curry of LSE (called "research" by the media and by the PR company behind it), which I would put in exactly the same bag, was sponsored by tits and fast cars men's channel Bravo TV ("The report is attached – you must credit the Bravo Evolution Report if you use it," said my PR company email). The equation for the beer goggle effect by Nathan Efron, professor of clinical optometry at the University of Manchester, sponsored by Bausch and Lomb, is another classic. And who could forget Dr Cliff Arnall of Cardiff University and his important work on "the worst day of the year" sponsored by Sky Travel, and his "best day of the year" formula: an early summer's day, it turns out, sponsored by Wall's ice cream.

There is no scientific merit to these equation stories. None. They don't attract people to science; in fact, they sell the idea that science is pointless, indulgent, irrelevant boffinry. News editors love them.

So I have developed my own equation, sponsored by badscience.net. The likelihood of an academic whoring their name to a PR company is calculated as GxPxIxC, where G is their (or their universities') greed, P is the plausibility of their university affiliation, I is their inability to make an honest living elsewhere, and C is their ability to concoct for themselves a plausible moral justification as to why they should be participating in this ridiculous money making sham at the expense of the public perception of science.

If you have been approached by a PR company to sell your name, and that of your academic institution, for a commercial company's promotional benefit, then I want to know about it: do the equations come almost ready made? How many reddies do you get? These companies must approach many more people than take up their lucrative offers. Talk to me. I am your friend. Anonymity is assured.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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50 Responses



  1. Kimpatsu said,

    November 18, 2006 at 2:37 am

    Ben, “…the rules of the game are openly flaunted…” Surely you mean “flouted”? And that really IS the correct syntax.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 18, 2006 at 2:42 am

    no, i mean they get the rules out, slowly, lick their fingers, and rub them seductively on their legislative framework, in front of everyone.

    surprisingly popular brain slip:

    www.google.co.uk/search?num=100&q=%22rules+*+flaunted%22

  3. becca600 said,

    November 18, 2006 at 8:53 am

    I think you’re wrong Ben. In the context surely you mean flouted as in scorned rather than flaunted as in shown off. This blog should be about being pedantic – not defensive!

  4. Dr* T said,

    November 18, 2006 at 8:54 am

    Kim,
    Take some omega-3 fish oils and watch the brain slips disappear……:)

  5. Dr* T said,

    November 18, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Becca – I think Ben is admitting a making a common ‘brain slip’, rather than being defensive……

    From Dictionary.com:

    Usage Note: Flaunt as a transitive verb means “to exhibit ostentatiously”: She flaunted her wealth. To flout is “to show contempt for”: She flouted the proprieties. For some time now flaunt has been used in the sense “to show contempt for,” even by educated users of English. This usage is still widely seen as erroneous and is best avoided.

    Ben – you are stil an educated user of English.

  6. kim said,

    November 18, 2006 at 9:15 am

    Becca600 – I think Ben was being humorous.

    Excellent article, anyway. Which is more depressing – that academics will sell their integrity to do this stuff or that journalists so slavishly report it?

    BTW, Cary Cooper is a well-known media tart. He pops up everywhere spouting opinions on any subject you care to name. I’m surprised he has time to do any work.

  7. wewillfixit said,

    November 18, 2006 at 9:50 am

    I suppose this sort of thing is common when you work in areas like organisational psychology like Cooper does – pretty much all your funding is going to come from industry and commercial companies, so the temptation to do a bit of nonsense research on the side must be high. Although he has been a bit of a media whore lately, he got into that position by doing a lot of very good work on stress.

    I remember a psychophysiology lecturer telling us about some funding he got from an anti-perspirant company he got to look at its effectiveness under stress and exercise – which was a way to get extra funding for his real work into the psychophysiology of stress. In his case though, it was proper research which concluded (as he knew it would) that most anti perspirants are pretty much useless once you come under heavy stress or do any major exercise.

  8. PJ said,

    November 18, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    If you get details of projects that more vituous scientists have turned down, would you consider posting them for those in need of cash to apply for? In the interests of New Labour’s committment to science, of course.

  9. profnick said,

    November 18, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    “Equation” what equation? It has no left hand side and no =!

  10. RedSevenOne said,

    November 18, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    How about this. Take 1000 Scholars, from 1000 Disciplines, Remove Egos, Biases, and History. Place them all in Wembley Stadium and give each of them 1 question to solve.
    No time limit, no food, until its done.
    Question – How long will it take?

  11. Tristan said,

    November 18, 2006 at 7:39 pm

    I guess I agree with this to a certain extent, but it’s worth considering just how easy this work is, and also how well paid it can be. All of these calculations are “back of the envelope” jobs, not real research (in fact, they’re more likely to be consultancies than research).

    Now, if universities weren’t so chronically underfunded then there would be no need to get as much income from other sources as possible. As it is this is easy money for little work and there’s nothing inherently unethical about it.

  12. TimW said,

    November 18, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    Sorry for paying too much attention to the “equation”, but what’s this VFM thing that’s going on in there? Isn’t the V (value) bit already accounted for in the whole rest of the [(V x P x R) + A] trash, which should then be divided by M (money)?

    Yes you’re right, I’m getting dragged into it. Forget I spoke, thanks.

  13. RedSevenOne said,

    November 18, 2006 at 11:00 pm

    Tristan – We might get Guiness to sponser it, if we made their’s the only drink available. We might get better out put if we shut down all but two of the loos.
    tehy sponsered a [Bridge Reference the RedSevenOne Link] once many years ago, I wonder if the Wembley would object to being renamed for the event.
    But I suggest Dr. Ben’s point is, and well taken, that sponsers will back anything if there is visibilty, no matter how silly it is, and science is no exception.

  14. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 18, 2006 at 11:22 pm

    i think if you totted up the empty PR stories, like these equations, or Dr Oliver Curry’s “research”, added the stupid “nutritional science” news stories, and the “pill solves complex social problems” stories, you might find that they make a significant proportion, possibly even the bulk, of the total health and science coverage in the media.

  15. jimbob said,

    November 18, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    Re Comment#14:

    This sounds like the sort of data that the Guardian Media/Education coverage might actually have (in some form): Science stories covered ion the media between two dates, the column inches in each paper, and the the subject. I have seen similar summaries about coverage of particular stories.

    It might then be possible to tot up what percentage this is… Maybe someone could write a formula to demonstrate the how these stories will get covered in particular titles:

    (D+S+Rr)/(Pon)
    where D
    is the amoount of Drugs, S sex, and Rr rock ‘n’ roll, whilst Pon is Percieved other news (sorry)

  16. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 19, 2006 at 12:02 am

    Silly science stories. Roughage?

  17. Frank said,

    November 19, 2006 at 12:18 am

    I blame Len Fisher! I’ve reposted an old article from the War On Error onto my main site:

    www.sciencepunk.com/v5/2006/11/formula-for-excess/

    This appears to be one of the easiest way to get your name in the papers. Personally, the really insidious shit is stuff like Nathan Efron’s Beer Goggles Formula, paid for by Bausch & Lomb Eyecare. Guess what – the most significant factor in the equation wasn’t beer…

  18. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 19, 2006 at 12:40 am

    frank, your important work on bausch and lomb’s formula is ground breaking.

    www.sciencepunk.com/v5/2006/10/nathan-efron-whores-himself-for-bausch-lomb/

  19. Mojo said,

    November 19, 2006 at 11:47 am

    This reminds me of a converstaion I had with a friend who is a journalist on a national tabloid. I mentioned Ben’s idea of a course to teach journalists how to read scientific papers to him. He said that while he thought it might be interesting there was no way his editor would be prepared to pay for it. As far as they’re concerned, a journalists opinion, however well informed, carries no authority, so they have a list of academics that they can get in touch with. At one end of the scale, if they want an authoritative comment on something relatively uncontroversial, there are plenty of people who will give them this for nothing. At the other end of the scale, if they just want a soundbite to lend a sensationalist story an air of authority, they will phone up (to quote the journalist) “Professor Wonk”, who will give them something they can use in exchange for 150 quid.

  20. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 19, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    that’s bullshit, journalists and editors make informed judgements about the merits of sports and politics stories all the time and they well know it. for a large number of reasons covered elsewhere (dumb me down, thinktank essay) they just love stupid science stories, and the EBM course is there for people who want to know, not to cure all the media’s science problems. I honestly think the only solution to that is to keep pointing out what intellectual peasants they are, over and over again.

    do please give me details on prof wonk though, he sounds great. anonymity assured etc.

  21. PJN said,

    November 19, 2006 at 1:28 pm

    If you’re the tame science monkey for the Guardian how can you get on your high about other people being corporate shills?

  22. PJN said,

    November 19, 2006 at 1:28 pm

    *Horse, high horse.*

  23. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 19, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    i’m not quite sure what you mean, you seem to be equating writing science-based opinion pieces as a columnist with producing corporate funded promotional material, that masquerades as scientific research, as a scientist?

    i don’t object to people being paid to work, if that’s confusing you.

  24. Tony Jackson said,

    November 19, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    I was going to suggest a dimensional analysis of this equation would be fun (just what are the SI units of “atmosphere of game” or “value for money”?) But as profnick (no 9) points out, it isn’t even an equation! This sort of thing is deeply, deeply pathetic.

    Having said that however, similar nonsense has sometimes been produced by people who really should know better. Some time ago, the ecologist Paul R Ehrlich came up with I = PxAxT where I is supposed to be ‘impact’, P is supposed to be population, A is supposed to be ‘affluence’ and T is supposed to be ‘technology’. To my mind, this is every bit as fatuous as anything produced by Professor Cooper.

  25. Mojo said,

    November 19, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    “journalists and editors make informed judgements about the merits of sports and politics stories all the time and they well know it.”

    But they don’t (according to my friend) bother reading the actual paper, at least not in any detail; they just rely on the press release that goes with it. If they want anything more, they’ll get in touch either with the author or someone who can be relied on to tell them what they want to hear.

    I’m afraid I don’t have any details of “Prof Wonk”. I don’t even know if the journalist was talking about a specific “Prof Wonk” or whether he represents a class of people, although I suspect the latter. Bear in mind that the conversation took place in a pub…

  26. pseudomonas said,

    November 19, 2006 at 5:04 pm

    “But they don’t (according to my friend) bother reading the actual paper, at least not in any detail; they just rely on the press release that goes with it.”

    Are they any better with political or economic documents?

  27. Richard said,

    November 19, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    It baffles me why these things get published. I know lots of newspapers publish this nonsense, but why? Do these journalists take no pride in their work? I think I would be too embarassed to put my name to such things.

  28. kim said,

    November 19, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Interesting question, Richard. What it comes down to is what editors believe sells papers. They think that people like stupid science stories but aren’t clever enough to be interested in the complexities and ambiguities of proper scientific research. Faced with the accusation that they’re peddling rubbish, journalists start saying things like, “We’re just giving the readers what they want.”

    It’s much the same principle by which Tesco, Asda et al justify selling homogenised milk and strawberries that don’t taste of anything. It’s what the punters want – given the choice between food that’s cheap and food that tastes of something, they prefer cheap. Apparently.

  29. imagineyoung said,

    November 20, 2006 at 12:56 am

    But the purpose of newspapers is to sell advertising space (from the owners’ pov), not to serve the readers. That’s probably why we find it a constant battle for science.

    The Guardian might be a little different here, as it is a charity or sumfink.

    Doesn’t ‘selling’ usually involve persuading people that they want ‘this version’ of their desired product – whether you are a supermarket from the dark side or an organic farmer sitting on the right hand of god?

    If the advertisers and sponsors of badscience could be persuaded that they will lose customers and credibility with their strategies, then they willl stop. Just as the fish oil fluffery might hurt equazen and cause other companies to think twice before bullshitting.

    On other hand, some of it is harmless fun (note – some). Are you sure that people really believe this?

  30. pseudomonas said,

    November 20, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    Imagineyoung:
    “Are you sure that people really believe this?”

    It’s not whether people believe that [(V x P x R) + A] x (VFM) is accurate, it’s whether they believe that this is what scientists see fit to spend their time doing.

  31. fillo said,

    November 20, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Hi Ben, as you seem to dislike the formula presented, I thought I would start an effort to come up with an objective formula for memorable national sporting events.

    I’ve just reread Nick Horby’s “Seven goals and a punch-up” chapter from Fever Pitch, and I think the following input parameters are needed:

    N: National, political and geographical factor. This should move events like England vs Scotland or Poland vs Germany up the list.

    To find N, add 2 points for a land border or 1 point for overlapping territorial waters. Add 2 points if there’s been war between the countries in the past century. For a colonial/empire relation or recent long-term occupation add 2 points.

    Hmmm, some sort of “Axis of Evil” factor is also needed, otherwise USA vs Iran scores zero! Maybe the president of each country gets to optionally randomly dislike 3 other countries. 2 bonus points an “Axis of Evil” encounter.

    U: Underdog factor. It’s always best to win unexpectedly, like Greece in Euro 2004. Take the decimal starting odds as being U

    C: Comeback factor. The Ashes match at Headingly, 1981 was great because everyone had written England off. Hornby also claims that the best football matches are being 2:0 down and winning 3:2, and I’m sure any Liverpool fans who were in Istanbul would appreciate the importance of C. C are the maximum decimal odds reached during the match.

    S: Seven Goals. A good match has lots of goals, lots of sixes, lots of tries etc. Each sport is given a designated highlight. S is the ratio of occurrences of said highlight in the match to mean occurrences for all similar matches. For example, say that on average there is 1.5 knockdowns per boxing bout. If in total a boxer is down 3 times then S would be 2.

    T: Television. Things only enter the national consciousness if millions of people see it live. T is the fraction of the country which is awake and can get in front of a TV. If it’s on pay per view at 4am, it’s not going to beat Torvill and Dean.

    I would suggest that the sport involved doesn’t matter at all, otherwise there is no way to explain how the english can get excited about yacht racing or ice skating or curling. I sadly can’t think of any way to objectionally measure scandalous decisions and disgraceful behaviour, which both you and Nick Hornby think to be vital.

    So there we have five objective parameters, N,U,C,S and T. Maybe some linear combination would work?

  32. pseudomonas said,

    November 20, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    “N,U,C,S and T. Maybe some linear combination would work?”

    I’ll go fetch my asterisks.

  33. hyperdeath said,

    November 20, 2006 at 4:08 pm

    It’s interesting how these “scientists have found the formula for the perfect X” formulae only ever contain elementary mathematical operations. Why do we never see anything along the lines of:

    Scientists have found the formula for the perfect chocolate chip cookie:

    Quality = N! log (D) – gamma(H + H^2) + tanh(C – S^4) ^ (2 pi A)

    Where N is number of chocolate chips, D is diameter, C is crunchiness, S is soggyness, A is aroma and H is hardness.

  34. ACH said,

    November 20, 2006 at 5:02 pm

    Hyperdeath, you could probably submit that for a PhD – to be awarded by the McVitie Institute for Advanced Biscuit Technology. Surely highly prestigious!

  35. Dr Aust said,

    November 20, 2006 at 6:57 pm

    Of course, credit where credit’s due, sociologists and the post-modern bollocks-ists were at this formulating-something-into-a-fatuous-equation back in the 70s, long before the psychologists. It was their bogus attempts to cast gnomic rubbish into quasi-mathematical formulae that Alan Sokal famously satirized in his Social Text hoax. See:

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Sokal

    The psychologists’ distinctive contribution has been to add a touch of tabloid to the formula-balls, rather than basking in po-mo mystic obscurantism.

  36. paul h artes said,

    November 20, 2006 at 11:56 pm

    ***It’s not whether people believe that [(V x P x R) + A] x (VFM) is accurate, it’s whether they believe that this is what scientists see fit to spend their time doing.*** Point well taken, and I agree. But there is more important Bad Science about. And the OED doesn’t yet have an entry for boffinry. Paul Artes, Life Sciences, Manchester.

  37. Scooby said,

    November 21, 2006 at 9:54 am

    And the damn ‘Beer Googles’ ‘research’ has come up as the most emailed story on the BBC this morning.

    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/4468884.stm

    The associated press release came out a year ago.

  38. Frank said,

    November 21, 2006 at 10:18 am

    Yes, I’ve just seen the Beer Goggles formula jump into the top emailed. Surely that wasn’t anything to do with us?

  39. Delster said,

    November 21, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    as the joke goes… what’s difference between a dog and a fox?…. about 5 pints!

  40. pseudomonas said,

    November 21, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    www.burtonwoodandholmes.com/urbanspectacles/beergoggles.htm

  41. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 24, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    this from a noble prof:

    On the basis of anonymity, I am happy to contribute the following experience.

    About six weeks ago, a colleague and I responded to a request on an academic mailing list from a PR firm wanting to commission some research on the changing use of the human thumb as a result of mobile phones, texting, etc. This was to form part of a product launch strategy by an unnamed client in the industry so there was quite a tight time limit. There is a small amount of published work on this topic, mostly funded by companies in the industry, but nothing very rigorous, to suggest that younger people have more dexterity in the use of their thumbs than older people. The PR firm had obviously bought into some half-baked evolutionary stuff about how this would all lead to future generations of humans having thumbs that were quite different shapes. I have to confess that we did not challenge this kind of Lamarckian thinking very energetically – there is, of course, no reason to think that skill in texting would confer a reproductive advantage and any greater muscle development would not be heritable anyway. However, what we did say was that we could envisage doing something that measured the size and muscle development of the thumbs of 50 x 18-25 year olds (students) and 50 x 35-45 year olds (local population before results could be complicated by arthritic changes). My colleague and I did discuss whether this would render us vulnerable to getting featured in your column but decided that there was just enough of a genuine scientific question to justify doing the work and publish the results somewhere moderately reputable. We could shoot down the misunderstandings of evolution at a later stage when we submitted the report.

    We then had to work out a price, taking into account the actual work, the tight deadline, what the construction trade call the ‘buggeration factor’ of rearranging work plans at short notice and the reputational risk of ending up in the Bad Science column. The result was a price that the client was not prepared to pay – which suggests either that the business is not as lucrative as you suggest or that some of our colleagues are selling their souls much too cheaply – particularly as we were consistently clear that we could not guarantee the results.

    Why did we get involved in this? First, there is a small but genuine scientific question – it is not clear whether the samples would have been big enough to detect changes in muscle development but valid measurements could be made. If we found something, it could have been published as a useful but minor finding. Second, we both looked at Christmas, the general under-funding of scientific research in universities and the inadequate salaries that we get relative to our peers in other professions – and thought ‘what the hell’. If public funders won’t pay a fair price for our labour, why shouldn’t we take what is on offer. The problem seems to be that PR firms don’t put much of a price on our virtue either – we have noticed with other approaches, not from the PR trade, that the outside world expects university staff to do work for peanuts and has no real understanding of what research costs. At the end of the day, Ben, the country gets the science it is willing to pay for.

    Would we do this again? I can’t speak for my colleague, but I would always be open to offers providing there was a real question somewhere at the heart of the approach. I entirely agree with your comments on the willingness of psychologists to invent an ‘objective’ measure of anything and turn it into a spurious formula. However, scientific journeys do sometimes start from trivial questions – why do apples fall down rather than up? You might not be able to do much on a PR budget, but you may be able to find out whether something is worth taking further with a reputable funder – and the cash is always useful. When top scientists get salaries that match those of City law firms, maybe we can be held to the same ethical standards. In the meantime, I personally don’t think we should be too prissy about who we do business with.

  42. Paul Stevenson said,

    November 24, 2006 at 3:36 pm

    Dear Ben,

    Since you mention me by name in your opinion piece, I suppose I’d better respond with my “plausible moral justification”:

    It’s true that I wrote an equation about how to pull a Christmas cracker. Indeed, it was not the first ‘fun’ equation I wrote. The first time was at the behest of the Institute of Physics who, as part of their remit to spread the word of physics far and wide, were looking for a way to make use of the large amount of publicity surrounding the end of Sex in the City. We came up with the idea of an equation for how to walk in high-heeled shoes, combining physics with some heuristic ways of including other factors into a light-hearted equation. That got quite a lot of publicity, and the most important way, as far as science communication was concerned was not so much the newspaper stories, but when it led to TV and radio interviews (of which there were quite a lot – as you point out, news editors love them). The interviews gave the opportunity to explain the physics involved, to let people know that the equation was intended as a bit of fun (and that public money wasn’t being wasted on such research), and to hopefully explain how maths and physics can be applied to everyday things. If it matters, the Institute of Physics (or anyone else) did not pay me for this, and your insinuation that people do this sort of thing for their or their university’s greed is very far off the mark, as far as I can see.

    As well as the Institute of Physics seeing the merit in such activities, the organisers of the Cheltenham Science festival asked me to talk (with a co-conspirator in the fun formula field) about these kinds of equations to a public audience (albeit one with an interest in science already). We included a kind of workshop where we created on the fly some equations with the help of the audience, getting people to think about the approximate way quantities change in a qualitative but numeric way, and stressing the importance of then testing the equations experimentally. I can’t prove that I’ve made someone study science as a result, but amongst the feedback from the audience were teachers who planned to use the workshop idea as a way of getting students thinking about maths. Indeed, I get emails not too infrequently from high-school students asking me about the formulae, since they are being asked to do projects and they find these equations as a way of making them more interesting. I’d be interested to know on what you base your claim that no-one gets attracted to science by these equations.

    Nevertheless, I know that not everyone agrees with the utility of such activities, so I went along to a Cafe Scientifique and opened a debate about the public perception of news stories featuring these kind of equations. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there was a range of opinion. None quite as extreme as yours, but a minority of people were staunchly against such things. The thing they all had in common was that they were already practicing scientists (so not the target audience of these stories) and felt that it debased the subject. The non-scientists present were generally well-disposed to the idea of scientists spending a small amount of their time doing things like writing equations about everyday things, going on TV to describe them, going to teachers conferences to talk about them and going to public debates to find what the public really thinks about them (and it’s not that it sells the “idea that science is pointless, indulgent, irrelevant boffinry” )

    Still, there’s an interesting debate to be had on this issue, and you raise legitimate points. It’s too bad that you decided to include in your article the cheap ad hominem stuff about greed and inability to make an honest living. Still, if you’re interested in debating the issue further, why not come along to the Brighton Cafe Scientifique on 20th March when the discussion, prompted by a short talk from me, will be about this very issue? There’s no fee involved, I’m afraid, as with so much of this science communication business, but I’ll be there.

  43. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 24, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    Hi Paul,

    you mention lots of things not involving a fee, could you tell us how much Tesco paid you to use your name and the name of your academic institution for the Tesco Christmas Cracker equation?

    I’d also be really interested to hear how you came to be doing it.

    You might be interested to know that you weren’t the first person they approached, this arrived in the huge batch of equation emails last week:

    to Ben Goldacre

    You asked about approaches from companies commissioning “research”. In case you want to know how many people were approached, I was (presumably one of many) called by Tesco’s this time large year. For reasons you explain clearly every week, your request for emails is unlikely to give a scientifically meaningful figure for the hit rate of these phone calls; nevertheless, here is my experience. Tesco’s were looking for a physicist who could provide them with a “formula for Christmas crackers”. Although I can’t remember the details of the conversation, it wasn’t at all clear what they were asking for (except that it was unlikely to be a serious research proposal or to bring any positive publicity). Anyway, I explained that the physics of Christmas crackers was outside my area of research expertise and gave my apologies.

  44. Andrew Clegg said,

    November 27, 2006 at 10:48 am

    I love the fact that the scientists quoted in #41 actually used the risk of ending up in Bad Science as one of their decision-making factors.

    … still nothing about the Tesco fee from Dr. Stevenson? …

    Andrew.

  45. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 7, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Don’t they ever get bored? Stand by for more from Cary Cooper, this one’s just out on the wires:

    Stressed this Christmas? Just remember

    EP + 2(PX+ W) + (FT + RW)

    2

    7th December 2006, London – Endless shopping queues, cold weather and the nightmare prospect of having the in-laws round for lunch are just some of the reasons why the UK is dreading Christmas 2006! New research released today by The Wrigley Company reveals that nearly a quarter (23%) of Brits are stressed out and not looking forward to the Christmas break. (* 2413 people interviewed by KRC for Wrigley)

    With just ten days until the last shopping weekend before Christmas – the most stressful period of all according to 26% of study respondents – Wrigley has teamed up with top ‘stress professor’ Cary Cooper to help tackle Britain’s Yuletide stress problem. Professor Cooper has developed a formula – based on the results of the survey of 2,400 people – comprising the UK’s key Christmas stress elements that will allow Brits to calculate their personal Christmas stress factor. The professor has come up with some top tips on how to reduce those stress levels as well!

    Exhaustion from the Christmas build up, leaving for work and coming home in the dark, getting in the supplies at home, those family members you just don’t want to see, and the return to work all add up to –

    Exhaustion Period + 2 (Preparation for Xmas + Weather) + (Family Time + Return to Work) / 2 = Christmas stress!

    In fact, the study shows that two million Brits will choose to flee the country on holiday and escape the Christmas crush altogether! Of those who stay behind, nearly half of us (48%) will get stressed out by the experience of Christmas shopping and buying festive foods; 14% will even spend time worrying about the workload left on their desks whilst others will agonise over who gets a Christmas card – with 12% even wanting cards scrapped altogether! It seems that the UK population this Christmas is more likely to resemble Scrooge than Tiny Tim…

    People are planning to try and take action this year to battle the Christmas stress factor with 16% intending to nurture healthy habits like taking exercise or chewing gum to help manage stress. A further 28% aim to avoid the high streets altogether by shopping online; and 27% will be hiding from people that they find most stressful to try lower their stress levels.

    Alarmingly, 44% of those surveyed admit they have no idea how to manage their stress levels and it would appear that putting your feet up and watching the telly (a favourite stress buster) won’t help at Christmas time, with endless reruns of the Snowman and Mary Poppins leaving nearly half of the population (47%) ready to tear their hair out!

    “Christmas should be a happy time of year, but the pressures of modern life mean it’s becoming a period of stress for some instead. Simple things like planning ahead, shopping online, reserving quiet time or actually looking at the positive aspects of spending time with family are all ways you can manage stress and get the most out of the festive season,” says Professor Cary Cooper.

    “Managing life’s little stresses doesn’t have to be complex; scientific studies have shown that chewing sugar free gum can help you relieve the symptoms of stress. So this Christmas, whether you’re shopping for presents or preparing for the family to arrive, a piece of gum could help you stay calm,” says Alexandra MacHutchon, from Wrigley.

    Professor Cary Cooper’s top tips for managing Christmas stress

    1) Do not leave everything to the last minute! Make sure you do start planning in the weeks leading up to Christmas – presents, provisions and what to do at New Year

    2) Remember to have some fun along the way; do things you enjoy doing and include members of your family too

    3) Make sure you don’t skip meals out of business, maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly

    4) Approach Christmas with a positive outlook – don’t let yourself think it will be a nightmare, focus on the best things about the festive period instead. That positivity will communicate itself to others around you

    5) Take some ‘me’ time – take a bit of time just to relax, unwind and indulge yourself for a few minutes during the day

    *KRC Research, November 2006, sample of 2414 adults in the UK

    About the Wrigley Company
    The Wrigley Company is the world’s leading manufacturer of chewing and bubblegum and a major player in the confectionery industry worldwide.

    Some of Wrigley’s most famous brands include Wrigley’s Extra®, Airwaves®, Orbit®, Juicy Fruit®, Wrigley’s Spearmint®, Doublemint® and Hubba Bubba®. Wrigley is committed to diversifying close to home and recently launched its first non-gum products for over one hundred years – Extra™ Thin Ice™ and Extra™ Mints.

    About Professor Cary Cooper

    Cary L. Cooper is Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University and the author of numerous scholarly articles and books on stress (e.g. Creating a Balance: Managing Stress, London: The British Library Press). He is also President of the International Stress Management Association and BACP.

    For more information or images please contact:

    Johnny Stark

    GolinHarris
    Fox Court

    14 Gray’s Inn Road
    London
    WC1X 8WS

  46. Dr Aust said,

    December 11, 2006 at 9:22 pm

    Lame-o. Is Cary Cooper desperate for money? Or has Irish charmer Geoff Beattie cornered all the good paying gigs for psychologists?

  47. crichmond said,

    December 16, 2006 at 9:47 am

    Dear Ben,

    You mean readies, not reddies, in your last paragraph.

    Yours nitpickingly,

    crichmond

  48. Jim Grozier said,

    March 15, 2007 at 7:16 pm

    Andrew Clegg said,

    … still nothing about the Tesco fee from Dr. Stevenson? …

    No, and the silence is nearly as deafening as that emanating from Ben as to whether he’s going to come down to Brighton on Tuesday to argue the toss with Paul …

    But hang on a minute – what exactly is the relevance of the Tesco fee? What difference would it make? After all, would our judgement of the worthiness of Ben’s column be affected by a knowledge of how much the Grauniad pays him to write it?

  49. Jim Grozier said,

    March 23, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    It doesn’t look like anyone is reading this thread any more. Nevertheless, I thought I should report back on the Brighton Café Scientifique event on Tuesday at which Paul Stevenson spoke about his equations, and at which, sadly, Ben did not turn up to support his argument that “there is no scientific merit to these equation stories. None. They don’t attract people to science; in fact, they sell the idea that science is pointless, indulgent, irrelevant boffinry”.

    The equations are, as expected, fairly simple and lighthearted, although there is more scientific substance to them than the sporting one quoted by Ben. We had a record turnout (several people couldn’t even get into the room and had to sit outside it until we removed some tables) and there was a very lively discussion following Paul’s short introduction. Nobody, from my recollection, said that the equations were silly or lacking in merit. In fact, the audience wanted more – and so Maxwell’s Equations and Schrodinger’s Equation came up, and we then had a discussion of what the square root of minus one might mean. After Paul left to catch his last train home, the discussion carried on, and I eventually had to shoo people downstairs.
    So no, I wouldn’t agree with Ben that “there is no scientific merit to these equation stories. None. They don’t attract people to science; in fact, they sell the idea that science is pointless, indulgent, irrelevant boffinry”. In fact my own viewpoint is that they play an essential part in raising the mathematical consciousness of the general public. It is absurd that, while science has reached such a point that it cannot be explained in any other way than with mathematics, people are told that maths is irrelevant and scientists are advised to leave equations out of their presentations and books.

    Perhaps a better conculsion for Ben to have made would have been:
    “These equations are not to be taken too seriously. Some scientists maintain that they have no scientific merit, while others would argue that they help to get ordinary people thinking in a quantitative, mathematical way”.

    But of course such statements don’t sell newspapers!

    Jim.

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