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:
- ad hominem attacks are a bit pathetic
- 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
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.
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.
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?