Clarion Communications respond on the rigged Jessica Alba wiggle…

September 20th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, cash-for-"stories" | 18 Comments »

There’s nothing I like better than people engaging in a discussion about ideas – and indeed criticising mine – but if there are two messages I’d really like to get out there, for general use, it’s these:

  1. ad hominem attacks are a bit pathetic
  2. you cannot make me go away simply by telling people my story was rubbish.

Here is a quick follow-up, by way of an object lesson in tenacity.

In the PR industry’s leading trade journal last week, Clarion seemed to be saying that I had somehow misrepresented them in the “team of Cambridge mathematicians prove Jessica Alba has the sexiest wiggle” story. They said: “The comments were based on preliminary discussions from a number of months ago and do not take into account the development of the story.” It’s interesting to note that the story of the work by this team of Cambridge mathematicians has even made it onto the pages of Time Magazine [from the comments].

In case you’re wondering what developments can possibly have taken place to negate the simple charge of them fabricating data (and more) let me jog your memory:

Kiren Ali from Clarion Communications had emailed me months previously, when I was “interested” in helping them, and made it perfectly clear that they were going to rig the results of the survey. If you have a better interpretation of his email from June 5th 2007, which I reproduce in full below for the record because I do not like people playing silly buggers, then do let me know.

“We haven’t conducted the survey yet but we know what results we want to achieve. We want Beyonce to come out on top followed by other celebrities with curvy legs such as J-Lo and Kylie and celebrities like Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse to be at the bottom e.g – skinny and pale unshapely legs are not as sexy. I will find out when we will have the results of the survey for you. Are you pretty free this month to work on it?”

Kiren Ali, Clarion Communications, June 5th 2007

As you will remember, there was no team of Cambridge Mathematicians, there was just a chap called Prof Weber, perhaps slightly naive for getting involved, but he bitterly regrets having anything to do with them: he too says that they rigged their data. In fact I reproduced his email in full, and he said a lot more than that:

“The Clarion press release was not approved by me and is factually incorrect and misleading in suggesting there has been any serious attempt to do serious mathematics here. No “team of Cambridge mathematicians” has been involved. Clarion asked me to help by analysing survey data from 800 men in which they were asked to rank 10 celebrities for “sexiness of walk”. And Jessica Alba did not come top. She came 7th.”

Professor Richard Weber, August 31st 2007

I fail to see how pwnership can possibly be disputed in this case. Here is the coverage that appeared in PR Week after the story.

clarion.JPG

As soon as I saw this I got straight onto Clarion to find out what I was missing, and PR Week were kind of enough to properly engage with the issue, taking an open letter from me to the PR industry, which I have to say was a very impressive move for a trade journal. For anal completeness, and the pleasure of a text version as well as a pretty image, this is what I sent them:

We have to talk. Every week there is another faked survey, another bogus “equation” story, all planted to sell a product. Last week it was “scientists have found the equation for the sexiest walk”, but that wasn’t really an isolated incident: there was the most miserable day of the year (Sky travel), and the happiest day of the year (Walls ice cream), the perfect minibreak (where the formula was so hamfistedly concocted that if you stayed at home with a travel time of zero you had an infinitely good weekend), the archives at badscience.net are overflowing with examples. And let’s not forget the Evolution Report on the future of the human species (Bravo TV) which carried the headline, in the Sun, “All men will have big willies”.

This would all be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that your work is the dominant theme in science reporting. We have to accept, as you know, that the media is run by flaky humanities graduates, who wear their ignorance of science like a badge of honour on their sleeves. Secretly, perhaps, deep down, they regret denying themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for two centuries, but in the meantime, one thing is clear from your phenomenal success at getting these stories into the papers: editors actually believe that what you send them is science news.

You run culture, and you distort ideas and perceptions for a living. What you’re engaged in here is effectively a war on the public understanding of science. These equations tell us nothing, they sell only the idea that scientists are irrelevant boffins who make stuff up. In my world, making stuff up is wrong. I’m not expecting you to stop, but you may absolve yourself of guilt by emailing me more anonymous examples of fakery.

prweekben.JPG

.

And here is what I sent to Clarion, to the people I was speaking to, and to senior management. Luckily I can type very fast, because if I spent more than ten minutes thinking about these jokers, I think my brain would go cold. Sadly they’ve not written back yet.

Hi Jemma,

we were chatting last week about the Clarion Communications campaign on Veet involving scientific research showing that Jessica Alba had the sexiest wiggle. I understand from reading PR Week that there is some concern from Clarion that I may have misrepresented the emails from Kiren Ali, or the status of the data?

Clarion Communications are quoted as saying: “The comments were based on preliminary discussions from a number of months ago and do not take into account the development of the story.” I am very keen to clear this up and ensure nothing has gone astray. Please can you let me know what developments have taken place which in any way affects the core problems raised by the emails from Kiren and Prof Weber?

Just so that we know we are all talking about the same quotes:

Kiren Ali’s email said:

We haven’t conducted the survey yet but we know what results we want to achieve. We want Beyonce to come out on top followed by other celebrities with curvy legs such as J-Lo and Kylie and celebrities like Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse to be at the bottom e.g – skinny and pale unshapely legs are not as sexy. I will find out when we will have the results of the survey for you. Are you pretty free this month to work on it?” I am happy to forward you the full correspondence.

My interpretation is that this is a clear intent to rig the results. Please can you let me know what this email means, if not that, and how it could be affected by subsequent “developments” in the story?

Prof Weber said:

“The Clarion press release was not approved by me and is factually incorrect and misleading in suggesting there has been any serious attempt to do serious mathematics here. No “team of Cambridge mathematicians” has been involved. Clarion asked me to help by analysing survey data from 800 [not 1,000] men in which they were asked to rank 10 celebrities for “sexiness of walk”. And Jessica Alba did not come top. She came 7th. [my italics]”

If there is anything wrong in this email I would be very keen to hear from you, again: as you can see he also seems to demonstrate quite clearly that the results from the “research” were rigged, and states clearly that no “team of Cambridge mathematicians” was involved. As I understood it from our extensive email correspondence he is extremely concerned about the way he has been used in this story. However, please can you let me know as soon as possible if what he says in his email is incorrect?

I am genuinely very keen that nobody is misrepresented here and hope to hear from you as soon as possible. Can you let me know that you’ve received this email and if there is someone else I should be talking to?

Many thanks,

Ben


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18 Responses



  1. projektleiterin said,

    September 20, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    I was reading Time Magazine the other day when I saw this newsflash about Jessica Alba and her perfect strut (it’s also online.

    I really feel somehow at unease about the media now.

  2. superburger said,

    September 20, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    just for completeness, can we have a nice picture of jessica alba’s legs somewhere on the page?

  3. Jut said,

    September 20, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    I just love the fact that she didn’t come top, but 7th:)

  4. jamess said,

    September 20, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    To me this reads like an unsubstatiated ad hominem attack:

    “We have to accept, as you know, that the media is run by flaky humanities graduates, who wear their ignorance of science like a badge of honour on their sleeves. Secretly, perhaps, deep down, they regret denying themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for two centuries”

    Am I wrong? Anyway:

    “the most significant developments in the history of western thought for two centuries”

    This makes no sense.

  5. Garulon said,

    September 20, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    I really hate the fact that PR agencies are trying to make people feel scientifically unattractive just to sell leg cream. And in _stories_ to boot!

    Shouldn’t these people buy advertising space like everyone else?

  6. jamess said,

    September 20, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    Well no, because ‘ad homines’ is not a widely-used term.

    dictionary.reference.com/browse/ad%20hominem

    “appealing to one’s prejudices, emotions, or special interests rather than to one’s intellect or reason.”

    However, it seems you know latin grammar and the workings of the hippocampus, which has successfully distracted me from the fact that you didn’t answer the question :)

  7. khenwood said,

    September 20, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    And in other news, pink elephants have been discovered in Africa.

    I mean, c’mon.

    I don’t know many people who rely on publications like the one in question for valid scientific news. It is quite sad though, because the general public is going to pick up their local publications and read what they believe to be articles actually written by scientists (or they at least got their factual information from a scientist). When in reality, most of it is crap or it’s a generalized article borrowing from many other sources & rehashed into someone’s unsupported “scientific” opinion.

    That being said, I dont’ know how many people would actually be interested in the stats used to determine the sexiest wiggle, valid or falsified.

    :)

  8. Despard said,

    September 20, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Well there’s a grant waiting to be written! :-)

  9. Steve Senior said,

    September 20, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    Off topic and pedantic, but I didn’t think the hippocampus mediates recall of long-term semantic memory.

    I worry about the sample group of volunteers you might get for your penis plethysmography.

  10. spinglespangle said,

    September 20, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    Wardin, if you proudly believe in the scientific process, then that makes you a good humanities graduate, and not a flaky one, I reckon.

  11. stever said,

    September 21, 2007 at 1:14 am

    Brilliantly – this story features in this week’s OK magazine (or it might have been Hello)

    surely a Bad science first?

    dissapointingly there is no photo of ben welcoming you into his camden hovel, infact he is refered to only as ‘a guardian journlaist’.

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 21, 2007 at 1:31 am

    seriously? way cool. take a pic with your camera phone or something, they’re the new pocket photocopiers. to replace the, er, previous pocket photocopiers which were a bit bulkier.

  13. used to be jdc said,

    September 21, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    www.badscience.net/?p=523#comment-16950
    Cheers Steve Senior. I’m supposed to be working, but memory recall and models of the formation of semantic memory seem much more interesting…

    Apparently, “recent functional MRI (fMRI) results suggest that the human thalamus is involved during semantic memory recall.”
    www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=122967

    I’m off to download some PDFs now. www.bu.edu/hasselmo/HasselmoMcClelland.pdf

  14. olliemae said,

    September 22, 2007 at 4:34 am

    Ben, you seem to have ruffled a few feathers among your “flaky humanities” readers. Even if we haven’t studied science at uni, many of us do take the subject seriously. I myself studied chemistry for two years before switching to my flaky classics degree.

    I of course agree that the so-called journalists who write this tripe are flaky, but in order to improve the problem we need to get away from looking down on those who take a nonprofessional interest in another subject (i.e. writers who dabble in science, doctors who dabble in writing, etc.). We should encourage crossover work, grab some scientists to write the science news, find out how philosophers could reform the pharmaceutical industry. We might just bring in some fresh new ideas.

  15. Robert Carnegie said,

    September 22, 2007 at 10:08 am

    The problem with using personal in-jokes in e-mail to people who don’t know you and your work, is, is self-evident. I mean, unless you’re communicating these days by YouTube, they can’t see you making “quote fingers”. Your hands are away from the keyboard.

  16. pigfrog said,

    September 28, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    Surely the accusative plural of ‘homo’ wouldn’t be stored in Ben’s semantic memory in any case as it is the recall of a propositionally learnt grammatical pattern – semantic memory would only be activated by recalling the lexemic meaning ‘man or person’ which is not affected by case/number.

    However, I am prepared to go along with Ben’s argument that it was episodic in this instance!! My recall of 3rd declension nouns (specifically ‘rex’ in my case)is similarly episodic!

  17. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 28, 2007 at 9:03 pm

    what i love about this place is the sheer scale of the unfettered anality.

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