Transparent excuse for printing a nice pair of hooters

December 13th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, churnalism | 24 Comments »

Just to be clear, nobody listens to a word I say. More important equation news from the Sun this week, with the exciting headline “How to tell if the boobline is too low… use this equation 0=NP(20C+B)/75”. Alongside a photograph of poor old Britney with her boobs falling out.

“Following her wardrobe malfunction — where she was snapped nearly popping out of a very low-cut dress at her 27th birthday bash, below — scientists, undies experts and mathematicians have been trying to figure out where the decency perimeter lies. And here we can exclusively reveal the formula to work it out.”

I will talk you through this important work. “To figure out the naughtiness rating (O), you times the number of nipples exposed, from zero to two or expressed as fractions of nipple shown (N) with the percentage of exposed frontal surface area (P).” And we’ll stop there.

This is, of course, part of a crap effort to sell a presumably crap book by an apparently crap mathematician who I shall not name, partly in protest at the crass way he makes a big fuss about doing maths at Cambridge (congratulations), and partly because it seems to me that he can’t do basic arithmetic.

“Britney’s tight fitting Roberto Cavalli dress showed off around 70 per cent of her breasts,” said the Sun: “and experts at Wonderbra think she is a 32D. Without any nipple exposure, Britney’s formula works out as 0x70x(20×5+32)/75 = 123.2.”

No. Without nipple exposure Britney’s score is zero, because zero multiplied by anything is zero. In fact, even if that error wasn’t made by our genius mathematician (did you know he did maths at Cambridge?) the formula is still cock, because if all women walked around wearing absolutely nothing but tassles on their nipples – fanny, bum, the whole lot – they would still have a naughtiness rating of zero.

Meanwhile my frighteningly anal chums at the ApathySketchpad.com blog have performed quantitative analysis on this question, by doggedly documenting every single equation story to appear in the Telegraph, a serious paper that covers science properly. Their finds include such important breakthroughs in the field of mathematical modelling as: The Perfect Sitcom (quality = (rd+v)f÷a+s) to promote UKTV Gold; The Perfect Joke (x = (fl + no)/p) to promote some comedian; The Perfect Day (quality = O + NS + Cpm÷T + He) to promote ice cream; The Perfect Rugby Kick (KP = CSP – s + w + r + yn + cr + sc + mt + xn + ctw), which somehow has something to do with a research company called Qinetiq; The Perfect Marriage (some guy); The Perfect Chip (Tesco); The Perfect Football Penalty (odds of scoring = (X + Y + S)×(T + I + 2B)÷8 + V÷2 – 1) for, oh, Ladbrokes; How To Open Champagne (P = T÷4.5 + 1) (Marks and Spencer); The Perfect Place To Shop (D=f(m,b,c)), Yellow pages; The Perfect Newspaper (it’s the Telegraph, heh); How To Pour Gravy: (amount of gravy = (W – D÷S) ÷ D × 100) mmm Bisto; The Perfect Biscuit (where the formula was deemed to complicated for Telegraph readers, and was “half funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and half by United Biscuits”); and many, many more.

Then they’ve done exactly wthe same thing for the Mail.

These stories tell us nothing about science. They are what PR companies call “advertising equivalent exposure”, a way to get your brand into the paper without paying, and onto editorial pages. They are copied and pasted onto the page by hurried journalists with a hangover and other deadlines to deal with, exactly as I have copied and pasted this work from my friend’s blog into my column, in a rather pleasing and self-effacing moment of rhetorical symmetry. But most crucially of all, these companies know that the way to get a non-story into a national broadsheet newspaper is to make it about science, the one subject which is regarded by editors and senior executives with universal derision and incomprenhension. Merry christmas.


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24 Responses



  1. The Biologista said,

    December 13, 2008 at 12:33 am

    What percentage of newspaper readers actually try to understand such equations? How many of these equations have any conceivable practical use? How much useful information of any sort is conveyed by these equations.

    Perhaps what we need is a meta-equation that we can sell to a newspaper.

  2. dok said,

    December 13, 2008 at 1:51 am

    What, you couldn’t find any pictures of owls to accompany this? For shame, Ben.

  3. TimW said,

    December 13, 2008 at 9:10 am

    That’s not a pair of hooters, it’s the same hooter twice. Headlines – never trust them.

  4. Toenex said,

    December 13, 2008 at 9:32 am

    @The Biologista: I believe there may be an equation you could use to help answer these exact questions….

  5. likeaword said,

    December 13, 2008 at 9:33 am

    “advertising equivalent exposure”

    -sigh-

    There are those of us in the PR industry who argue that this is a rubbish measure of success and that we should use more meaningful measures (like how many more people buy something).

    As this link (not to my site) details

    metricsman.wordpress.com/2008/12/08/with-primary-research-secondary-pr-roi-efforts-will-remain-elusive/

    Oddly AEV is still commonly used. It can’t be because it’s a lot easier to get a non-news story in the paper than it is to actually influence people’s views. Can it?

  6. The Nameless said,

    December 13, 2008 at 10:06 am

    *headdesk*

    That is all.

  7. roodle said,

    December 13, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Why even bother having the number of nipples on show as part of the equation, how many designer dresses have you seen that show off one nipple? You can either see nipples or you can’t.

  8. Dr Aust said,

    December 13, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Fascinating. I remember the “Cambridge educated mathematician” in question from back when he was a leading British chess player in my distant youth.

    Pointing which out means I have, for the first time ever, managed to connect “chess” and “hooters”.

    Result!

  9. Lafayette said,

    December 13, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    There ought to be a perfect perfect formula formula, no? Factors ought to include:

    N) Arbritrary rating of newsworthiness, between 0 and 1;
    S) Sexiness rating, again between 0 and 1; (perfect nipple size – .9; perfect bum wiggle – .7; perfect voice – .3;)
    C) Number of statisticians working on the project
    D) The amount paid out to the statisticians.
    I) Column inches of media coverage / equivalent ad spend
    L) Number of times corporate sponsors name appears
    P) Expected revenue

    These, of course, deal not with the formula itself:

    é) number of symbols used and
    F) number of functions.

    Now we just have to work out how all these factors fit together, but let’s be honest, who cares?

    [(N*S/P-D)^C] / [ L/I*é*F ]

    No idea what kind of numbers this kicks out, or over what kind of range, but if we call it an “index” or a “quotient” then we needn’t worry too much about it. In fact, lets name ourselves a unit. A Gossard?

  10. The Biologista said,

    December 14, 2008 at 12:57 am

    @Toenex

    Are you suggesting a meta-meta-equation?

    Hm.

    I may have to do some calculations on that one.

  11. ChippendaleMupp said,

    December 15, 2008 at 10:44 am

    So what I want to know is does a reference to breasts in a headline increase the number of readers? Have you had more hits on this article than other recent ones? I’ll bet the crap Christmas tree I just bought that you have!

  12. Toenex said,

    December 15, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    @The Biologista

    Yes precisely. In fact I believe that, as we speak Cambridge based boffins are hurriedly putting the finishing touches to an equation that will provide the most suitable equation for, errmm well… anything. As far as I understand it, the properties of this equation will include a complexity factor that can be set depending upon the intended publication. So that if the equation was only to appear in, say The Sun it would almost certainly be linear and have no more than 4 variables. Whilst if it was to appear in the Telegraph it may have nonlinearities and have anything up to 12 variables, some of which may even be correlated.

    For many it might seem strange that it has taken so long for the mathematical eggheads to get around to developing such an equations. Particularly given its obvious utility in modern news reporting. However, it has proved highly illusive. Indeed, it wasn’t until a bored post doc came across prior work by Douglas Adams on the infinite improbability drive and used a prototype of the equation to generate the final equation we might not have made this significant move forward. Good work fellas.

  13. mikewhit said,

    December 15, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Why could it not be a spoof for the pure intellectual pleasure of doing so – like the 419-baiters who got the 419er to send some funds to cover VAT so they could dispatch the promised computers !

  14. Dr_John_Crippen said,

    December 15, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Dear Oh! Dear, these pretentious Cambridge people. If only he had been to Oxford.

    John

  15. Diversity said,

    December 15, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    ” …and partly because it seems to me that he can’t do basic arithmetic.”

    When working as a statistician, I concluded that no one with a realy good understanding of statistics could be trusted to do basic arithmetic. Could that also apply to mathematicians?

    The hallmarks of professional excellence apart, I remember from my schooldays that producing plausible nonsense equations can be fun; though we always insisted on logical coherence. Could BadScience organise a competion to be won by the reader who, while observing the coherence rule, persuades a jounalist to publish the most absurd equation on April 1 next?

  16. The Biologista said,

    December 16, 2008 at 2:45 am

    I love the word “boffins”. If scientists were an ethnic minority it’d be our word and nobody else would be allowed to use it without being called a racist.

    I say we take it back anyway.

  17. mikewhit said,

    December 16, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    “You can either see nipples or you can’t” – well, you can also have what Graham Norton has referred to as “Oooh ! Nipple alert !” – in cold weather …

  18. John said,

    December 17, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Although most of this stuff is complete and utter drivel I think the Perfect Biscuit one might actually be genuine.

    My last company used to sell recipe software for manufacturing companies and quite often the recipe for something (say a biscuit) could be reduced to an equation which drove the manufacturing process.

    As this study cost £91,000 I doubt if it was intended as one of those other stupid equations you reference (and quite rightly ridicule).

    On the other hand if you had not pointed this out on Saturday I would not have had the opportunity to enjoy Britneys busty substances.

  19. MedsVsTherapy said,

    December 18, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    I am glad we don’t have this running theme in the U.S. We just have the various personality tests in the women’s magazines (your fav [fill in blank] reveals your personality).

  20. nohassel said,

    December 22, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    He published a chess book called “Soft pawn”. What can you expect?

  21. Synchronium said,

    December 24, 2008 at 2:25 am

    No. Without nipple exposure Britney’s score is zero, because zero multiplied by anything is zero.

    Hah! How blindingly obvious.

    Currently reading your book btw. Makes a great addition to my library, thanks a lot!

  22. mikewhit said,

    December 30, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Seems to give the “right” answer if you leave out the N completely.

    Perhaps they meant to say (1+N) instead of just N – doubly naughty if one showing, triply so if both showing …

    And if you can see only the outlines (think cold day) then of course N is imaginary, giving a complex (x+iy) result …

    Doh, I’ve fallen for their mad premise !!

  23. MarcosN said,

    January 14, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    who would actually use these equations in real life ? no-one and even more , the people who actually make sense of it wouldnt use it any way, its just rediculous!

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