Saturday November 18, 2006
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 firstname.lastname@example.org