(MediaSlut – Ideas) + Money = CorporateWhore

December 16th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, blue monday, cash-for-"stories" | 31 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday December 16, 2006
The Guardian

Ok, look, it’s Christmas, so we really ought to learn to let things go and move on with the important business of being happy and civil, and divert all our bitterness into contriving divisive racist stories about local authorities banishing the baby Jesus from shopping centres. But in amongst all the usual hatemail I’m still getting from the electromagnetic hypersensitivity anti-phone-mast lobby, I received something this week that triggered, I freely admit, something deep inside me that I could only describe as a feeling. This is most unusual.

Cliff Arnall

You might remember Dr Cliff Arnall. He is probably the most prodigious of all producers of bogus “equations”: proving that some arbitrary date in mid-January is the most miserable day of the year for Sky Travel; proving that some arbitrary date in mid-June is the happiest day of the year for Walls ice cream; and so on. I wrote about them scathingly last month, and the email I got from Cliff said: “Further to your mentioning my name in conjunction with ‘Walls’ I just received a cheque from them. Cheers and season’s greetings, Cliff Arnall.”

Now the fact is that Cliff Arnall’s equations are stupid, and some fail even to make mathematical sense on their own terms. His equation for the perfect long weekend is a case in point. It is “(C x R x ZZ) / ((Tt + D) x St) + (P x Pr) >400″ (Tt = travel time; D = delays; C = time spent on cultural activities; R = time spent relaxing; ZZ = time spent sleeping; St = time spent in a state of stress; P = time spent packing; Pr = time spent in preparation).

This equation is dimensionally half-cocked, as rude mathematicians would say, since it adds a time quantity (the fraction in brackets on the left) to a time-squared quantity (PxPr); but more importantly than that, it’s just stupid, because if you pack for 10 hours and prepare for 40, then you get a result of 400, meaning you’ve apparently had a great weekend.

And if great isn’t good enough, then you can have an infinitely good weekend by staying at home and cutting your travel time to zero (if dividing stuff by zero makes infinity).

In fact it’s not surprising that these equations are so stupid, because they come from the PR companies almost fully-formed and ready to have your name attached to them. I know that because I have received an avalanche of insider stories – Watergate it isn’t – including one from an academic in psychology who was offered money by Porter Novelli PR agency to put his name to the very same Sky Travel equation story that Arnall sold his to. In amongst their aggressive pitch they described how the story would go.

“Blue Monday – January Blues Day is Officially Announced: The 26th January is the most depressing day in the calendar for the majority of Brits as measured by a simple mathematical formula developed on behalf of Sky Travel.

“By taking into account various factors such as avg temperature (C), days since last pay (P), days until next bank holiday (B), avg hours of daylight (D) and number of nights in during mth (N), we create a formula such as C(P+B) N+D. This formula allows us to work out the day with the highest ‘depression factor’ which you can then use as a focus for making things better, booking your holiday etc …” This is almost exactly as it was when Arnall revealed his important work to the world.

So these equations are scientifically uninformative, and driven by money. But is there more to it than that? Because in my more extremist puritanical moments, I am of the opinion that these equation stories – which appear with phenomenal frequency, and make up a significant proportion of the total science coverage in the UK – are corrosive, meaningless, empty, bogus nonsense that serve only to caricature and undermine science.

And what’s really interesting about Cliff is that he seems to me to be a man driving that peculiar anti-science agenda. He thinks his ludicrous “unhappiest day of the year” scientific equation “gets people talking about depression when the people who run psychology [sic] aren’t getting the message across. Peer-reviewed papers do not do what psychology ought to do – help people talk about their feelings and get the most out of life.”

“Anyway you can see I am clearly a media slut,” he says proudly on his website, in the bit where he lists his media appearances. No, Cliff. A “media slut” is an academic who bends over backwards to get his ideas in the papers. You’ll get your cheque from Walls for this article, as you say, but that’s because you are a “corporate whore”.

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


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31 Responses



  1. woja said,

    December 16, 2006 at 12:55 am

    Oh dear, Ben. Certainly rattled your cage didn’t he? It rattles mine, and I don’t have the satisfaction of writing mine up for a national newspaper and a great website. That’s all. Just jealous.

    Oh, by the way, thought of something better than “corporate whore” but I don’t want to offend anyone with bad language. I’m insulted by bad mathematics but that won’t stop it getting published.

  2. lukep said,

    December 16, 2006 at 12:56 am

    Good lord, I assumed they at least made up the bollocks they put their name to. His face exudes smugness from that picture as well.

  3. Twm said,

    December 16, 2006 at 1:18 am

    tusk, everyone knows that time spent sleeping is Zzz.!

  4. jackpt said,

    December 16, 2006 at 2:28 am

    There’s a magic set that is complete for the equation and each variable had at least two of these 1 = (Ay*365 – Ay*52) – elv0(1 -2/10)^c where Ay is age in years and elves don’t like Mondays. Like the song by the Boomtown Rats. It’s late Friday and I am therefore excused for pulling formulas out of my arse, I can only hope he’s funding something useful with all of the filthy cash.

  5. jackpt said,

    December 16, 2006 at 2:42 am

    Delete post #4. It’s been totally mangled because I used less than and greater than signs without HTML escaping them. It makes little sense now because two paragraphs have been lost. It was a formula to work out how many elves are killed by your column (it’s a Christmas themed piss-take of the happiness formula) of the form:

    _elv = (Ay*365 – Ay*52) – elv(1 -2/10)^c

    Where c is the number of columns and Ay is the age of the population of elves if an elf is born every day and they don’t like Mondays. It was actually far more detailed but what with it been quite a good Friday night I’m not entirely sure what I posted the first time. I think it worked though.

  6. Nick Grant said,

    December 16, 2006 at 7:48 am

    Someone seems to have too much time on their hands!

  7. JunkkMale said,

    December 16, 2006 at 7:58 am

    Ho, ho, ho (as we say at the Noth Pole, which is due soon to get a beach it seems). He, and Walls, must be so proud.

    Actually, he may inadvertently have hit on something, and I have you to thank for pointing it out:

    ‘…you can have an infinitely good weekend by staying at home and cutting your travel time to zero.’

    Actually, that’s not too far from a desireable truth, at least environmentally. And, indeed, at this festive time of the year, socially, too. Me, the wife & kids, at home, making new stuff out of old stuff together. Bliss. Merry Xmas.

  8. Teek said,

    December 16, 2006 at 9:45 am

    calm down Ben Dear, it’s just commercial maths…!

    i dont think it’s particularly puritanical or extremist to say that these bogus, corporate-sponsored ‘equations’ that fill the tabloid pages are part of the anti-science agenda – in fact, i agree wholeheartedly and i’m sure most of us on the blog/forums would agree…!

  9. kitbarritt said,

    December 16, 2006 at 10:01 am

    While I completely agree with you on the utterly spurious nature and un-scientific providence of the equations, your worked example (10 hours packing, 40 hours preparing) doesn’t really work.

    The equation is shown as:
    (C x R x ZZ) / ((Tt + D) x St) + (P x Pr) >400

    Given the limitation of print should we read this as

    (C x R x ZZ) (divided just by) ((Tt + D) x St) (then plus) (P x Pr) >400

    or:

    (C x R x ZZ)
    ——————————— > 400
    ((Tt + D) x St) + (P x Pr)

    In other words, how far does the oblique go?

    Your interpretation is correct, but surely not what was meant as packing time would never have a positive correlation to enjoyment. I think we can assume that the long oblique got lost along the way.

    Showing the equation as:

    (C x R x ZZ) / [((Tt + D) x St) + (P x Pr)] >400

    would be fairer.

    Sometimes even CW’s need to be given the benefit of the doubt.

  10. Bob O'H said,

    December 16, 2006 at 10:26 am

    kitbarritt – It’s the first: * and / have a higher priority than + and -. It’s a standard convention (= so standard even I know it).

    Cheers

    Bob

  11. Tom Whipple said,

    December 16, 2006 at 10:50 am

    A couple of years back I emailed Cliff about his depressing day formula, under the guise of writing a acience article about it. He was unwilling to talk, but he sent me the below email:

    Hi Tom

    In a nutshell the Jan 24 formula was a PR exercise.

    I was asked to come up ‘the best day in January to book a holiday’.
    Without my knowledge or blessing this turned into ‘the most most
    depressing day of the year’. I had a few days to come up with the
    variables so there was no research. whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the
    challenge of deciding on the variables it certainly couldn’t be called
    science.

    Sorry to disappoint.

    best wishes
    Cliff

  12. stever said,

    December 16, 2006 at 11:17 am

    hahaha Tom

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 16, 2006 at 11:21 am

    thats really interesting tom, that cliff should say it was turned into “the most depressing day” without his permission, since from the mail i received it seems sky were looking for people to do “the most depressing day” from the outset, and they even had their answer ready before the academic produced the material (end of january payday).

  14. SciencePunk said,

    December 16, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    Hang on, Cliff gets multiple cheques and Niko Tiliopoulos doens’t even get paid?

    Anyway, good work.

  15. Daniel Rutter said,

    December 16, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    The amazing thing is how few of these proud whores have remembered to paint “WHORE” on both sides of their car in huge red letters. It just seems to slip their mind.

    Fortunately, their fans sometimes find the time to do it for them.

  16. MissPrism said,

    December 16, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    If he wants to “get people talking about depression”, maybe he shouldn’t be pushing the notion that it’s the same thing as being a bit pissed off because the weather’s bad and it’s a long time til payday.

    Or maybe he’s planning to follow this story up with a big suicide equation.

  17. jimyojimbo said,

    December 16, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    @ MissPrism, #16: Aye, yes, absolutely. I mean, of all the organisations you’d look to to stimulate a serious public debate about clinical depression etc, Sky Effing Travel would be pretty low down the list. Perhaps a couple ofplaces below the folks who made The Teletubbies.

    I remember the first time Cliff Arnall’s January equation thing came out; my colleagues and I (Psychology postgrads) wrote many responses to the BBC News Have Your Say site, with, predictably, no results. Psychology, which is in any case a pretty general catch-all term for a vast and varied field, isn’t exactly the most widely respected discipline in the media / public eye, and it’s sh1te like this that makes it worse. The weird thing is, at the time, we couldn’t find him on the Cardiff Uni website (where the press said he was from, as far as I remember), and I can’t even find his website now.

    Although, Google “Cliff Arnall”, and the first result contains the phrase “Cliff Arnall is full of sh1t”. Well done, Google. Well done.

  18. Ben Goldacre said,

    December 16, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    google page rank naturally reflects the geek opinion I guess, but might only do so for as long as content is disproportionately produced by a geekier demographic…

  19. Daniel Rutter said,

    December 17, 2006 at 5:20 am

    It’s not just the content, it’s the linking as well. There’s tons of non-geek content on MySpace &c, but because (to a first approximation) nothing but a crappy MySpace page is ever likely to link to another crappy MySpace page, those pages’ PageRank remains miserable.

    So while there’s unquestionably a strong pro-geek bias, it does also deliver significant real quality control in Google results.

    (And, as I write this, the “Arnall’s full of crap” result has slipped to #2. :-)

  20. jackpt said,

    December 17, 2006 at 9:10 am

    Similarly the geek demographic, whatever that actually is, may be the majority group when it comes to writing about certain subjects. Instead of writing about silly equations I imagine most people just make that clicking noise with their tongue briefly touching the bit above their upper front teeth, saying something like “have you seen what this boffin has come up with! Well I never”. Maybe I’m vastly over estimating the general ignorance out there, but I’d be willing to bet that other search phrases aren’t dominated by geek content. Which would suggest that (these days) Google isn’t necessarily geek biased for subjects that geeks don’t search for.

  21. TimW said,

    December 17, 2006 at 3:28 pm

    Here’s a goodun:

    “Completely fictional scientists at a made up university have announced today that they have discovered the formula for a successful press release. The newsworthyness of a story, known in the trade as its Arnall quotient, can be written as:

    Arnall = B0/10cKs
    …”

    iscience.wordpress.com/2006/06/23/formula-for-a-successful-press-release/

  22. Evil Kao Chiu said,

    December 18, 2006 at 10:10 am

    What I like is that if you Google “Cliff Arnall” you get a load of sceptical websites liberally scattered with those bigging-up Cliff’ and his qualifications. The former consists in amateurs; the latter consisting in news outlets. Someone remind me what the point of journalists is again?

    Er, except Ben, that is.

  23. Silverfin said,

    December 18, 2006 at 10:48 am

    When I was a maths teacher sometimes my students would proudly bring in formulas of that ilk (usually from Metro), and I would explain why they were bollocks. (Except without using the word bollocks.)

    I think this stuff is damaging because many of the readers (non-geek, non-academic ones) think that 1) if a ‘scientist’ says something it must be true, and 2) that this is the sort of thing that scientists, academics spend their time working on.

  24. RS said,

    December 18, 2006 at 6:41 pm

    Guess who says this on his website: “Quick word about academic publications (which includes some of mine): many are conducted on very small samples of university students. The results are then often generalised to the rest of the population. This is clearly ridiculous and in the UK and the US in particular it is arrogant. Why? Well, people in other parts of the world may not behave as we do. They may have different ways of responding to drugs, particular social settings, mental illness, stress…

    Don’t assume that because a paper appears in a posh journal that what it says is true or valid. Check out the sample used in the study (i.e. who are the people used) and check out the design – it may lead to biases. Also feel free to e-mail the key author to share your questions or concerns – though there’s no guarantee they’ll respond.”

  25. RS said,

    December 18, 2006 at 6:43 pm

    I note that you call him “Dr” Cliff Arnall, why? Doesn’t seem to be a doctor of anything according to his little bio: www.nopills.demon.co.uk/

  26. RS said,

    December 18, 2006 at 7:03 pm

    Unfortunate that, unlike the states, “psychologist” isn’t a protected title (like “doctor” sadly, although “charted psychologist” is protected).

  27. Whisht said,

    December 28, 2006 at 9:37 pm

    Hi all,
    aw, I know I should post something cerebral, but…. its the winterval an’ all and this is fairly amusing:
    www.fireland.com/sentence/

    and on topic (well, its an equation…)

  28. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 19, 2007 at 10:56 am

    living.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=95802007

    The happy feat
    ANDREW BURNET

    HOW are you expecting to feel when you wake up on Monday 22 January? Gloomy? Chilly? Hard-up? Full of the lurgy? Or just a bit Monday-morningish? Well, you won’t be alone.

    Two years ago, the fourth Monday in January was officially designated the unhappiest day of the year. That’s “officially” according to the findings of psychologist and academic Cliff Arnall, who was then based at Cardiff University, having been commissioned by Sky Travel to come up with the ideal date on which to cheer yourself up by booking a holiday.

    Using six factors, including post-Christmas debt, midwinter weather and failed New Year’s resolutions, he came up with a tongue-in-cheek formula to identify the year’s most miserable day. The idea caught on, and Arnall’s formulae were commissioned by other organisations, including the ice-cream manufacturer Wall’s, which asked him to pin down the happiest day of the summer.

    For Arnall, though, the outcome of this project was not altogether a happy one.

    Some members of the scientific establishment attacked him for trivialising the issues surrounding depression and anxiety.

    Arnall doesn’t accept this criticism: “I became involved because I wanted to get people talking about depression and cut down the stigma of it,” he says. “Even if it just means people at the pub saying, ‘Did you hear about that daft equation?’ it all adds up, as far as I’m concerned.” Ultimately, though, the university authorities took such a dim view of his media activities that they terminated his contract.

    This January, Arnall is not letting it get him down. He happily insists he has plenty of work lecturing, running workshops and consulting individual clients.

    But if you are feeling down and want to banish the 22 January blues, what can you do about it? Here’s some timely advice from people for whom human happiness is not just a concept, but a part of their livelihood.

    www.gm.tv/index.cfm?articleid=24235

    Don’t suffer in silence
    Apparently Monday the 22nd of January is the most miserable day of the year. We need you to tell us why

    How miserable will you be next Monday?

    Scientest Dr Cliff Arnall has calcualted that next Monday, the 22nd of January will be the most depressing day of the year.

    He has based this formula considering debt, time elasped since Christmas, failing New Year’s resolutions and low motivations at work.

    We want to hear from you. What makes you miserable this time of year? And will next Monday be the most miserable and why?

    You can email us using the form below, text us on 81189 cost 25p + network rate, or send a video message to 07739 672 673 cost 50p + network rate.

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