Saturday December 16, 2006
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org