Imaginary numbers

September 1st, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in cash-for-"stories", evolutionary psychology, statistics | 36 Comments »

[This piece got massively cut for space in the paper, fair enough but personally I can't bear to look. Here's the last version I saw, with added email action from Professor Weber at the bottom.]

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
September 1st, 2007

“Jessica Alba has the perfect wiggle, study says”. You have to respect a paper like the Telegraph, especially when they report an important piece of science news like this on their news pages, especially when it gets picked up by other people like Fox news, and especially when it’s accompanied by a photograph of some hot totty. “Jessica Alba, the film actress, has the ultimate sexy strut, according to a team of Cambridge mathematicians.”

This important study was the work of a team – apparently – headed by Professor Richard Weber of Cambridge University, and I was particularly delighted to see it finally in print since, in the name of research, I discussed the possibility of prostituting my own good reputation for this same piece of guff with the very same PR company in June.

Here was their opening email: “We are conducting a survey into the celebrity top ten sexiest walks for my client Veet (hair removal cream) and we would like to back up our survey with an equation from an expert to work out which celebrity has the sexiest walk, with theory behind it. We would like help from a doctor of psychology or someone similar who can come up with equations to back up our findings, as we feel that having an expert comment and an equation will give the story more weight.” It got them on to the news pages of the Daily Telegraph.

I replied immediately. “Are there any factors you would particularly like to have in the equation? Something sexual perhaps?” “Hi Dr Ben,” replied Kiren. “We would really like the factors of the equation to include the thigh to calf ratio, the shape of the leg, the look of the skin and the wiggle (swing) of the hips… There is a fee of £500 which we would pay for your services.”

And there was survey data too. “We haven’t conducted the survey yet,” Kiren told me: “but we know what results we want to achieve.” That’s the spirit! “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?”

So. Clarion Communications do a survey, but they’ve already decided what the result is, beforehand. Then they employ Professor Weber. Then they have the gall to put out a press release with the headline: “Jessica Alba voted sexiest walk: with the figures to prove it.” Nice. Who does their surveys for them? It was an internal email sent around the company.

The press release continues. “Professors have hailed the waist-to-hip ratio as a significant factor in judging female attractiveness – women with a waist-to-hip (WHR) ratio near 0.7 (waist circumference that is 70% of the hip circumference) are invariably rated as most attractive.” And why? “The 0.7 WHR also gives Jessica the torso strength to produce a better angular swing and bounce to the hips when she walks, helping her to show off her best assets when she walks – her shapely curves and smooth, glossy legs.” Ooh look it’s all sciencey.

But it’s already perfectly well known from real research that European men prefer women with a waste-hip ratio of 0.7, and I wouldn’t be so sure that has anything to do with their “wiggle”, “torso strength”, “bounce”, or any ridiculous rigged survey.

More than that, students of comparative sociobiology who enjoyed last week’s nonsense on “why girls prefer pink” might also be interested to know that cultural variations have been identified: the preferred ratio has been reported as 0.6 in China; 0.8 or 0.9 in parts of Africa and South America; and there is even variation related to ethnicity within nations, although this kind of thing wasn’t in the “cut me and paste” Clarion press release.

Then I managed to get hold of Professor Weber at a remote location in Greece. He told me this: “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.”

These “cash for bad science” stories add nothing to our understanding of the world, and they do nothing to promote science. They sell products, pay money, misrepresent the very notion of doing research, and sell the idea that scientists are irrelevant boffins engaged in pointless head scratching.

And did they really get 1,000 respondents from an internal email survey? Well maybe: Clarion Communication are part of WPP, one of the world’s largest “communications services” groups. They do advertising, PR and lobbying, they have a turnover of around £6 billion, and they employ 100,000 people in 100 countries. These corporations run our culture, and they riddle it with bullshit.

Here’s the email from Weber:

It’s pretty damning.

Dear Dr Goldacre,

I have heard that you have taken an interest in the press release that has
been put out by Clarion Communications about the analysis of what makes a
“sexy walk”. I am presently away on a research trip abroad, but my
attention has been drawn to this item in the press today. I have not been
pleased to read the nonsense that has been written and I thought you might
like some background.

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 mathematics here. No such thing has happened. No “team of Cambridge
mathematicians” has been involved in producing the results that have been
reported. I do not endorse what the press release says. I did not approve
it and would not have done so if asked. I have emailed my contact in
Clarion Communication to ask for an explanation, but I have had a reply
that she is on holiday.

Clarion asked me to help by analysising survey data on from 800 men in
which they were asked to rank 10 celebrities for “sexiness of walk”.

Jessica Alba was 7th on the list, near the bottom. I reported that there
was little one could conclude from the data on the 10 names, but that of
the variables I looked at, waist/hip ratio WHR had the greatest
correlation with rank order in the list. Top of the list was Angelina
Jolie, who had the second greatest WHR. Beyonce had the greatest WHR and
was ranked 4th. Clarion were looking for something to help with a
promotion for Veet. I suggested that as a bit of fun and nonsense, but no
more, that they could say something like the following:

“I have studied how 10 celebrities have ranked for “sexiness of walk” in
relation to their bust-waist-hip measurements. Jolie’s measurements at
36-27-36 mean she has the biggest waist surveyed, and a waist-hip ratio
(WHR) of 0.75. Scientists have repeatedly discovered that WHR is a
significant factor in judging female attractiveness. See, for example,

news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6444851.stm

Women with a WHR near 0.7 are invariably rated as most attractive.
However, it’s probably ‘the way she moves’ which attracts, not just shape.
Angelina’s slightly larger waist may give her the torso strength with
which to produce a better angular swing and bounce to the hips than
minuscule stars such as Eva Longoria and Kylie Minogue can achieve with
32-21-33 and a WHR of only 0.64.”

I fear that the Clarion press release is an example of disingenuous and
perverted use this simple remark, not of any bad science. I trust you will
not wish to follow their lead.

Do please contact me by email if you’d like any more information.

yours sincerely,

Richard Weber
Professor Richard R. Weber
Director
Statistical Laboratory
Centre for Mathematical Sciences
Wilberforce Road
Cambridge CB3 0WB

And here is the press release from Clarion Communications:

JESSICA ALBA VOTED SEXIEST WALK: WITH THE FIGURES TO PROVE IT

Hollywood beauty, Jessica Alba, is ‘strutterly’ desirable – she has the sexiest ever walk, according to new research revealed today by Veet.

Veet, the hair removal expert, has teamed up with mathematicians at Cambridge University to reveal a ratio to work out who has the hottest walk, and the Fantastic Four star clocked up the top score, thanks to her luscious legs and curvy frame.

Jessica scored a text-book perfect 0.7 when her vital statistics were ploughed into the ‘sexiness ratio’, below.

WAIST MEASUREMENT ÷ HIP MEASUREMENT = RATIO

Professors have hailed the waist-to-hip ratio as a significant factor in judging female attractiveness – women with a waist-to-hip (WHR) ratio near 0.7 (waist circumference that is 70% of the hip circumference) are invariably rated as most attractive.

The 0.7 WHR also gives Jessica the torso strength to produce a better angular swing and bounce to the hips when she walks, helping her to show off her best assets when she walks – her shapely curves and smooth, glossy legs.

Other beauty icons who rated highly:

  • Screen siren Marilyn Monroe who scored an almost perfect 0.69 – who can forget her small part in the Marx Brothers movie, Love Happy, in which she debuted her very sexy walk, or the Seven Year Itch, which exposed Marilyn’s legs to the world?
  • Catwalk queen Kate Moss has a WHR of 0.67, helping her to carry off the catwalk strut perfectly.
  • Desperate Housewives babe Eva Longoria scores a near perfect 0.67 – as a former dancer in the Pussycat Dolls, it’s no wonder she’s perfected the perfect wiggle.
  • With a WHR of 0.75, curvy Mr and Mrs Smith star, Angelina Jolie is also listed by experts to be amongst the top stars with the sexiest walk.

The Veet research also asked 1,000 men and women what they viewed as the perfect figure. A whopping 70% of British men62% of women envied the slighter frames of Cameron Diaz and Keira Knightley. revealed that they prefer the curvier figures of R ‘n’ B diva Beyonce Knowles or British beauty Kelly Brook to very-thin physiques like Victoria Beckham. But

Veet Beauty Panellist, Sarah Bunkell, comments: “It’s great to see such an eclectic mix of women scoring high on the ‘sexiness ratio’. Variety is the spice of life – long legs, larger waists, small hips and big busts can all contribute to a very sexy walk!”

To work out your waist-to-hip ratio, simply measure the waist and the hips and divide the measurement of your waist by that of your hips.

-ENDS-

For more information, please contact Veet Press Office: Janie Cowan or Natalie Murtagh on: 020 ###

Notes to Editors:

  • * Celebrity measurements taken from www.imdb.com were correct at time of press release
  • Veet was formerly known as Immac
  • Users are advised to always read the instructions in the pack before use
  • Veet stockist number: 0845 #########
  • Veet is a registered trademark
  • The entire Veet range is accredited by the British Skin Foundation
  • For more information, log onto www.veet.co.uk

References:

For the stuff on waist-to-hip ratio, I read through a lot of the papers for another project a while ago, and the current Wikipedia page is just fine: despite my profound anality I have no problem with linking it, and that’s more honest than copying the references. Integridy. Yeah baby. Feel it.

en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Waist-hip_ratio&oldid=154515358

And here is a great paper critiquing the WHR=0.7 stuff:

www.jeremyfreese.com/docs/FreeseMeland%20-%20SevenTenthsIncorrect.pdf


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36 Responses



  1. jackpt said,

    September 1, 2007 at 1:44 am

    f/w = scientist’s fee divided by words dedicated to the release in the press. As the result approaches zero PR folk reach a kind of nirvana.

  2. mark said,

    September 1, 2007 at 1:48 am

    “I suggested that as a bit of fun and nonsense, but no
    more, that they could say something like the following”

    Why on earth did he suggest that? Did they perchance chuck him £500 for ‘consultancy’? Or more? Isn’t it bad science to lend his name as a Cambridge mathematician to this kind of nonsense?

  3. marcdraco said,

    September 1, 2007 at 2:56 am

    This is all because respectable scientists don’t get invited to “those kinds of parties.”

    Thanks to Douglas for that nugget of wisdom.

  4. ashley said,

    September 1, 2007 at 3:30 am

    I’m glad Weber was blameless. He was lecturing me in stats only months ago. and he managed to make it interesting. I’d have been really disappointed if he had sold his soul and our faculty’s reputation.

  5. PhilEdwards said,

    September 1, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Mark – I think you’re being too tough on Weber. If you look at what he actually said, it’s all reasonable number-crunching (albeit of some junk numbers) apart from a ‘may’ and a ‘probably’. Perhaps it didn’t show tremendously good judgment to get involved in the first place, but that’s hindsight speaking.

  6. mark said,

    September 1, 2007 at 10:52 am

    Look, the guy’s clearly been naïve here. Possibly he’s the stereotypical Oxbridge don who knows nothing of the flashy world of the media, unlike the worldly-wise Ben Goldacre who knew quickly enough what this was about and to steer clear. Personally, I’d like it if scientists didn’t get involved in this kind of rubbish, but of course scientists get involved in all kinds of terrible stuff, far worse than flogging skin treatments with soft news.

  7. Dr T said,

    September 1, 2007 at 11:09 am

    mark: in a way that’s a fair comment. The other side of the coin though, is that scientists are under a huge amount of pressure to engage with the public, and Dr Weber’s comments quoted in the email are a perfectly reasonable response, that would have been readily understood by the lay readers. A good opportunity to get a bit of stats/maths in the media? fine. That this quote was so misused by the PR company suggests that scientists are justified in resisting media engagement, which is an enormous shame. If this sort of thing was less prevalent, then us ‘donnish’ types might be happier to talk about our work, I reckon. I know that sounds like an “I will if you will” argument though – very weak!

  8. doris said,

    September 1, 2007 at 11:25 am

    I am now of ‘grumpy old woman’ age;I find all this pseudoscientific claptrap demeaning and trivial.
    it is so refreshing to be able to visit an excellent site like this one to get the true perspective.
    One wonders what credentials female university entrants will have to supply in the future?
    Well done to badscience for exposing it.

  9. coatgal said,

    September 1, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Where do they get these celeb stats from anyway? 36-27-36? 32-21-33? *And* I thought we had all gone metric…

  10. Isabel said,

    September 1, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    And what’s more, supposedly this is a promotion for a hair removal cream — but nothing in the “article” suggests that one might want to buy hair removal cream. It seems that Clarion actually forgot what they were trying to do with this “study”.

  11. Kess said,

    September 1, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    Blimey. The version in The Guardian really has been drastically hacked down and lost a lot of its punch. Hopefully discerning readers know to come here for the real deal.

    Isabel – perhaps Clarion is trying to imply that less hair below the waistline also helps give a sexier walk…

  12. Ambrielle said,

    September 1, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    Um, I haven’t managed to drag myself out of the house to buy the hard copy of The Guardian yet, but I can’t find the article on the website. What am I missing? Am I just blind and/or stupid?

  13. rob said,

    September 1, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Well, if Weber has been misrepresented by the press in a way that might adversely affect his reputation (which this looks like), then that is libel. It doesn’t matter that the Telegraph got it from a press release, they’re still responsible for fact checking. Maybe getting sued would make them less likely to parrot bad science in future without checking it out!

  14. Isabel said,

    September 1, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    rob: I’ve seen various iterations of the “article” (you can find them by Googling “has the ultimate sexy strut”) and none of them seem to mention Weber explicitly (or even in any implicit way that would make it possible to identify him), only his university. But I suppose Cambridge could sue for libel.

    Kess: “perhaps Clarion is trying to imply that less hair below the waistline also helps give a sexier walk…”
    Sure, but they’re doing an awfully good job of hiding that implication. As it is, this particular article probably does more to support the dieting industry than the hair-removal industry.

  15. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 1, 2007 at 8:55 pm

    my guess is they wanted to promote the idea that bigger women are more attractive for three reasons:

    a) bigger market

    b) bigger surface area requiring hair removal (seriously)

    c) befriending those who you think may have low self esteem is a core talent in marketing beauty products

  16. LadyHP said,

    September 1, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    “waste-hip ratio” Ben? Your true feelings are showing!

    I also feel like Weber hasn’t be very cautious here. Maybe his remarks, if read to the word, are true, but basically his answer was a suggestion to “playfully” say something based entirely on a “probably” and a “may”. That’s generally what marketers do (though Veet really pushed the envelope here!).
    I hope this story contributes to proving that science students need to be better prepared to deal with PR, journalists, and a general public that doesn’t really want any “probably may tend to” type of stories.

  17. Deano said,

    September 2, 2007 at 11:06 am

    On a tangential point I used to work for a company that used to manufacture Immac (Veet). One day we had a telephone call from a hospital which wanted to know the formulation. Our head Chemist said on no account could he release that information as it was commercially confidential. The hospital then pointed out that that they had an Indian lady with severe damage to her intestinal tract, who had been taking it internally, and the label at that time did not make clear that it was not for internal use.

    Our head was then quick to tell them that the formulation included Thioglycolic acid – a very nasty smelling acid which can dissolve protein – whenever anyone opened a jar of it in the lab most of us found an excuse to shuffle of elsewhere.

    Never found out what happened after that – although the labelling was changed pretty damn quick…

    Somehow I think I’d still like Angelina Jolie even if she shaved, rather than dissolved the hair off of her legs….

  18. projektleiterin said,

    September 2, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    my guess is they wanted to promote the idea that bigger women are more attractive for three reasons

    I’m confused. Where in this article do overweight women get promoted?

  19. john barleycorn said,

    September 2, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    Who the heck is Jessica Alba?

  20. gadgeezer said,

    September 3, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Jessica Alba – Dark Angel, Sin City and Fantastic Four. In general, slopes about film sets looking fantastic in leather – possibly that’s just me and if Mrs G were to read this, I throw myself upon the mercy of the court.

  21. Maya said,

    September 3, 2007 at 10:22 am

    I always thought the hip to waist ratio preference was due to a certain ratio making it more likely that you would have a successful pregnancy and survive delivery (as a mother). But if there are ethnic variations perhaps this is not true?

  22. Min said,

    September 3, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Isn’t that just another “just-so” story like the Girls Prefer Pink Cos Of Hunter-Gathering And Stuff one? If you look across history and societies then it’s mostly cultural.

  23. tomrees said,

    September 3, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    The WHR is mostly driven by two variables – width of the pelvic girdle and adiposity. Throughout most of human evolution, high numbers on both have good for childbirth (although not necessarily good for walking).

    It’s only in recent years that fatness has become an indicator of poor health prospects and natal complications, leading us to favour smaller WHRs.

  24. Maya said,

    September 3, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    Ben suggested I post this as a comment – check this and other articles by the authors (full article is free access):

    Am J Psychiatry. 2005 Feb;162(2):263-9.

    Male body image in Taiwan versus the West: Yanggang Zhiqi meets the Adonis complex.

    Yang CF, Gray P, Pope HG Jr.

    Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.

    OBJECTIVE: Body image disorders appear to be more prevalent in Western than non-Western men. Previous studies by the authors have shown that young Western men display unrealistic body ideals and that Western advertising seems to place an increasing value on the male body. The authors hypothesized that Taiwanese men would exhibit less dissatisfaction with their bodies than Western men and that Taiwanese advertising would place less value on the male body than Western media. METHOD: The authors administered a computerized test of body image to 55 heterosexual men in Taiwan and compared the results to those previously obtained in an identical study in the United States and Europe. Second, they counted the number of undressed male and female models in American versus Taiwanese women’s magazine advertisements. RESULTS: In the body image study, the Taiwanese men exhibited significantly less body dissatisfaction than their Western counterparts. In the magazine study, American magazine advertisements portrayed undressed Western men frequently, but Taiwanese magazines portrayed undressed Asian men rarely. CONCLUSIONS: Taiwan appears less preoccupied with male body image than Western societies. This difference may reflect 1) Western traditions emphasizing muscularity and fitness as a measure of masculinity, 2) increasing exposure of Western men to muscular male bodies in media images, and 3) greater decline in traditional male roles in the West, leading to greater emphasis on the body as a measure of masculinity. These factors may explain why body dysmorphic disorder and anabolic steroid abuse are more serious problems in the West than in Taiwan.

    PMID: 15677589 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

  25. DS said,

    September 3, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    To be honest, it looks as if Prof Weber has been guilty of perhaps being a little over-frivolous, but not too much else. And the tone of his email to you is a fairly solid indicator.

    Unfortunately, we now exist in a climate where universities must constantly be subjecting themselves to media exposure, whoring themselves to the whim of the market and the banal tyranny of RAE and so these things are increasingly likely to happen.

    Still, at this point I though you would have been doing a victory dance, having seen the hideous poo woman expunged from our TV screens.
    One more small victory for common sense.

  26. ShatterFace said,

    September 3, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    ”The authors hypothesized that Taiwanese men would exhibit less dissatisfaction with their bodies than Western men and that Taiwanese advertising would place less value on the male body than Western media.”

    So how come Taiwan’s so famous for it’s ladyboys (Kathoeys)?

  27. ShatterFace said,

    September 4, 2007 at 9:24 am

    Or Tai girl.

    Somebody should sort these countries out.

    Didn’t we have an Empire or something to stop this kind of confusion?

  28. ShatterFace said,

    September 4, 2007 at 9:31 am

    Ben, you were asking about ideas for good website design.

    Number One Idea would be including a way for posters to go back and edit their earlier comments.

    It could save so many problems.

    At the very least we wouldn’t have to resort to lame jokes in order to save face!

  29. CaptainKirkham said,

    September 4, 2007 at 10:58 am

    As a grumpy youngish woman, I too find this pseudoscientific claptrap demeaning and trivial.

    I also think most of you are being far too generous to the good Professor Weber. Naivety is about the most generous interpretation of the fact that he added his name and a lengthy “analysis” to what was clearly a PR stunt. “Sexiness of walk” indeed! Oh yes, lots of good opportunities to get some serious maths/stats/science in the media there! Please. I’m sure the fee had nothing to do with it.

  30. magenta said,

    September 4, 2007 at 11:48 am

    For what it’s worth, I felt the article in the paper got your point across just as well, at least to this reader. It’s illuminating to read the extra stuff here, but the article still works in its abbreviated form. There are times when editing really has messed up the point you were trying to make, but I don’t think this was one of them.

  31. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 4, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    I presume this sort of deceptive advertising by press release isn’t covered by the Advertisising Standards Agency. A shame, really, because it is very bad for science. It’s arguably more corrosive of understanding, trust and respect for science than creationism, at least in the UK.

  32. testtubebabe said,

    September 5, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Not since the time it dissolved my nose

  33. Maya said,

    September 11, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Might be a bit late to add to this discussion, but here is another bit on media coverage of scientists:
    [on genetic deffects being spotted by facial scans]

    When science and journalism collide
    By Nick Higham
    BBC News, York

    It’s just the kind of thing you don’t want at an event dedicated to improving communication between scientists and the rest of the world – a row about the way a particular piece of science is reported.

    But that’s what the British Association for the Advancement of Science has had to contend with on the opening day of its annual Science Festival in York.

    Last Thursday, the Association held a press briefing to highlight some of the papers being delivered at the festival here in York.

    One in particular caught journalists’ imagination – a paper detailing work done by Professor Peter Hammond of the Institute of Child Health at University College London, and reported elsewhere on the BBC News website.

    The story, embargoed until Monday morning, got extensive coverage in that day’s papers, including the Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent, and on BBC radio.

    When my colleagues at BBC News 24 saw the papers, they were keen to carry it as part of our coverage of the opening day of the festival: I told them that Professor Hammond had agreed over the weekend to do a live interview about his work for News 24 at 5.30 on Monday afternoon.

    But the interview never happened. Just after lunch on Monday, Professor Hammond cried off. He was, he said, extremely angry. His work had been misreported, he had been misquoted, and he wanted nothing more to do with the media.

    A colleague had warned him this would happen, he said, and he should have listened. I told him that a live television interview would give him an opportunity to put the record straight and he went away to think about that and to talk to the press office at the Institute of Child Health. But later he confirmed he was pulling out, saying he was “too angry and too tired” and might end up saying something he’d regret.

    I can’t tell you in detail what Professor Hammond was unhappy about, but I can give one example, because as we spoke he was holding a copy of the Yorkshire Post report on his work.

    It was headlined “Hi-tech facial scans used to detect autism in children”. That, said Professor Hammond, was wrong: his scans could not “detect autism”.

    Different tracks

    The piece (in common with much of the other reporting of his work) said his computer program could “revolutionise diagnosis” of children with genetic conditions: that too, was wrong, he said.

    Indeed, the Independent reported him as saying at last week’s press conference, “This is not diagnosis. The diagnosis is done by a clinician and a molecular geneticist doing the genetic testing.”

    Finally, he said, the Yorkshire Post had quoted him as saying, “you can spot a kid with Down’s syndrome a mile away”. That, he pointed out, was an insensitive remark; he simply hadn’t made it.

    The piece in the Yorkshire Post was written by an experienced freelance journalist, Richard Sadler, who was not at last week’s press conference but had spoken to Professor Hammond on the phone.

    He told me that Professor Hammond had indeed made the remark about Down’s syndrome: “It may not sound terribly PC, but that’s what he said,” according to Sadler.

    He thought it was permissible to talk about “diagnosis” since Professor Hammond’s software was part of the “diagnostic process”. As to the headline, Sadler said he hadn’t written it, though he had written the Yorkshire Post’s opening paragraph: “Scientists have developed a computerised face recognition system that can instantly diagnose autism and other genetically inherited diseases by homing in on tell-tale differences in facial features”.

    ‘The challenge’

    Anyone familiar with journalism knows its limitations, and many people will tell you that stories about things of which they have personal knowledge often contain inaccuracies or misunderstandings.

    Scientists, operating in a culture which places enormous importance on accuracy and precision, can find reporters’ occasional sloppiness infuriating.

    Equally, journalists often find scientists unworldly in their insistence on caveats and qualifications at every turn and their use of technical language, when reporters are desperately trying to simplify complex concepts and make them accessible to a general audience.

    Nevertheless Professor Hammond’s reaction seems to have been unusually vehement. So I asked the British Association’s chief executive, Sir Roland Jackson, whether problems of this sort were common. No, he said; this case was unusual and unfortunate.

    “It illustrates the nature of our challenge in trying to encourage scientists to interact more openly. Whenever you talk with someone else, there’s a danger of being misrepresented,” he said. “But from my point of view, for scientists to withdraw into their shells and to stop communicating would be completely unproductive.”

  34. ajo1979 said,

    September 12, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    I’m a bit late to the party, I know, but I wanted to respond to Isabel’s comment that the agency did a poor job of marketing the brand because Veet was barely mentioned.

    The trick is that this press release was never intended to advertise Veet. It is there to provide ‘original publicised research’ that can back claims made in future press releases.

    Now they can say something like “Stop being hairy! Cambridge boffins prove smoother legs key to feminine beauty. Experts recommend Veet!”

    The first statement is now backed by Dr Weber AND (more crucially), the Telegraph, both of whom I think should have stayed well clear. The second statement could be backed by any number of ‘beauty experts’.

    I read a really interesting (and very long) feature on this technique several years ago (I can’t remember where, and Google offers no clues – sorry) and now I see it used every where – dubious research and made-up statistics are released as “news” to main-stream media. The advertisers use the references to endorse their products, giving weight and ‘legitimacy’ to their outrageous claims.

    Please note that I am only relaying what I have read, interspersed with my own beliefs. I am neither an advertiser or a researcher so I have no first hand experience.

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  36. YuHsuanChang said,

    October 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Hey Dr. Goldacre,

    My name is Yu-Hsuan Chang, and I am a forth-year graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Rice University in U.S. I really enjoy reading your paper, and thank you for sharing this very serious information. Could I please have your permission to refer your this article in my personal website? I really want to share it with my colleagues. My personal website: sites.google.com/site/alicia00chang/

    Thank you so much and look forward to hearing your soon,

    Yu-Hsuan

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