“Blue Monday” is churnalism, beware any journalist who puffs it

January 24th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in blue monday, cash-for-"stories" | 77 Comments »

The Guardian,
Saturday January 24 2009
Ben Goldacre

Blue Monday started life as a corporate puff for Sky Travel (end of January, perfect time to book a holiday). Their PR company, incidentally, offered a suspiciously similar ready-made “equation” to another academic, just months before it first appeared as important research by Cardiff academic Cliff Arnall.

But now Blue Monday has slipped out of Sky’s ownership and become part of the canon of pseudoscientific media myth. Most alarmingly, last year it was used by the Samaritans, and this year it was used by the Mental Health Foundation. These people, apparently, think it’s okay to use bullshit to promote awareness of mental health issues.

The Sun say “it is officially the most depressing point of the year. The misery of “Blue Monday” was worked out by psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall.” The Express loved it. The Mirror too. “Experts have worked it out” said Channel 4CBBC fed it to children: “Researchers say the third Monday in January is when people are more unhappy than at any other time in the year.”

When I last criticised Arnall in 2006 (he also has a formula sponsored by Walls for the happiest day, which is in June), Cardiff University wrote to the paper, asking us to point out that he had only been a part-time tutor at the university, and left in February.  These efforts to distance themselves from their famous child felt slightly disingenuous since they were also, at the same time, quoting Arnall’s ridiculous appearances proudly in their monthly roundups of the good work done by Cardiff press office to spread scholarship to the people.

I hope they are busy disabusing everyone else this year, including the Daily Mail, of course: “Today – January 19, 2009 – is the most depressing day in HISTORY, say experts. Psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall has devised a mathematical formula that pinpoints today as Blue Monday.”

Meanwhile Martin Hird, a senior lecturer in mental health and psychological therapies at Leeds Metropolitan University, told the Telegraph: “I would guess there is something in it based on the daylight hours and people’s social circumstances.” Right. You’d guess. Rather than actually knowing, or researching anything. I don’t fully understand why we don’t just ask your hairdresser instead.

And is there good evidence of season having an impact on our collective mood? Seasonal affective disorder is its own separate thing. If you look at the evidence on the population’s mood, depression, and suicide changing over the seasons, you do, in fact, find a glorious mess. Come into my anal and obsessive universe.

Back in 1883 Esquirol commented on the higher incidence of suicide in spring and early summer. Swinscow showed the same thing with all UK suicides from 1921-1948. So that’s not really winter blues. A study in 2000 looked at all UK suicide data from 1982-96 and found that even this seasonal pattern had pretty much disappeared.

What about elsewhere? A 1974 study on all suicides in North Carolina (3,672) and admissions to their Veterans Hospital Psychiatry Service (3,258) from 1965 to 1971 showed no seasonal variation. A 1976 Ontario study found peaks of suicide and admissions for depression in spring and autumn. Suicide is highest in Summer, says a paper from Australia in 2003. I’m really not getting this Blue January thing.

Maybe you want data from the general population on mood. A study in 1986 looked at 806 representative males from Finland and found low mood more common in the summer. Some studies do find higher rates of depressive symptoms in the winter (Nayyar and Cochrane, 1996; Murase et al., 1995), but then, some find the opposite results, like a peak in the spring (Nayham et al., 1994) or summer (Ozaki et al., 1995). One study from just last month proactively asked 360 patients to rate their mood regularly, rather than waiting for an event, and found no relationship, again, between mood and season.

Maybe there are other sources of data you could explore? A paper looking at GP prescriptions for antidepressants in 1984 found a spring peak. An earlier paper from 1981 (Williams and Dunn) looks at prescriptions from 1969-75 and finds peaks in February, May and October. Another from the same year looked at GP consultations for depression and found peaks in May-to-June and November-to-January (they found similar results for osteoarthritis, oddly).

I’m not claiming to have done a thorough systematic review of the academic literature before breakfast. I’m just saying it’s possibly a bit more complicated than everyone getting depressed in winter.

Maybe those papers are too old? Recently, researchers have found a peak in admissions for depression in autumn (Sato et al., 2006 and Silverstone et al., 1995), winter (Lee et al., 2007) and spring/summer (Shapira et al., 2004). Eight other groups of researchers have found no seasonal peak in admissions for mania and depression at all (Partonen and Lönnqvist, 1996, Partonen and Lönnqvist, 1996, Suhail and Cochrane, 1998, Whitney et al., 1999, Goikolea et al., 2007, Daniels et al., 2000, Upshur, 2005 and Mortazi et al., 2002), and no peak in admissions for depression (Kerr-Corrêa et al., 1998). Stop me now.

And worst of all, we know that lots of things really are associated with depression, like social isolation, stressful life events, neighbourhood social disorder, poverty, child abuse, and the rest. Get those in the news, I dare you. Suicide is the third biggest cause of life years lost. Anything real you could do to study the causes, and possible preventive measures, or effective interventions, would be cracking. Making stupid stuff up about the most depressing day of the year, on the other hand, doesn’t help anyone, because bullshit presented as fact is simply disempowering.


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77 Responses



  1. Will Davies said,

    January 24, 2009 at 4:00 am

    Ah – this is a great article, full of referencey goodness, but I’m afraid I stopped absorbing information properly after I read a line that ended “come into my anal” and sprayed tea all over my laptop.

    Turns out changing the text size on your browser has unexpected side effects…

  2. Jeremy said,

    January 24, 2009 at 4:40 am

    I don’t disagree with anything substantive you wrote, but does “Suicide is the third biggest cause of life years lost” actually mean anything?

    If 35% of my headaches are caused by drinking too much wine, 25% by drinking too much beer, 22% by banging my head against the wall, and 18% by banging my head against my desk, then is “banging my head against the wall” my third biggest cause of headaches? Or is it second, behind “drinking too much”? Or is “banging my head against things” my biggest cause of headaches?

  3. peterd102 said,

    January 24, 2009 at 5:23 am

    Well I wasnt depressed at all when I heard the story but all this talk of suicide is. This is why I won’t read the Guardian.

  4. csrster said,

    January 24, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Yes, but it’s a shame they omitted the “hairdresser” line.

  5. thepoisongarden said,

    January 24, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Of course, ‘we know’ that everyone feels a bit down once all the Christmas and New Year nonsense comes to an end so this is another example of telling people something they want to believe.

    Knowing you are not alone may be a comfort so I wonder if redoing the work and telling people everyone else feels bad on that day would make people fell better.

    That would mean that the most depressing day of the year, er, wasn’t.

    Is there a prize for the first person to demonstrate that they have followed, and read, everyone of your links?

    It does seem that, even here, some people don’t get the joke.

    Actually, once I wrote that I realised it is not a joke. All too often, references are used to validate an argument safe in the knowledge that few if any readers will follow the trail and confirm that what is being referenced is what the reference meant.

    It becomes like theatre posters. ‘Mutt and Jeff reported that singing in the bath causes stress in domestic cats’. Only if you actually follow the reference will you find that Mutt and Jeff added ‘but this finding was based on a very small smaple and can not be taken to apply generally’.

  6. Moganero said,

    January 24, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Forget all the complicated formulae. The most depressing day of the year is probably just the peak day for people who have finally despairingly given up on their New Year’s resolutions.

    Would it be the same day in countries where NY resolutions are not a custom? In Spain hopes for the New Year are commonly expressed, rather than resolutions: would it take longer for people to become disillusioned and so would a Spanish most depressing day be later in the year?

    Has anybody asked Arnall if the day he specified was HIS most depressing day of the year? If it was, perhaps it was because he hasn’t got anything to do until the next spurious calculation is due!

  7. Ian said,

    January 24, 2009 at 10:32 am

    ‘Mutt and Jeff reported that singing in the bath causes stress in domestic cats’

    Whenever my cat has fallen in the bath he found it VERY stressful. I’m guessing if I made him sing before letting him out he’d be even more stressed.

  8. thepoisongarden said,

    January 24, 2009 at 10:51 am

    spk76 I assume you’re the author of that piece.

    I found it very interesting but, I hope you’ll forgive me for saying, only after I’d copied the text and pasted it onto a plain background so I could read it.

  9. SubMoron said,

    January 24, 2009 at 11:13 am

    That was “anal” wasn’t it? I wondered whether it should have been “Arnell”.

  10. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 24, 2009 at 11:59 am

    the refs above are correct but you will find some errors in the links like i said, it was my rough linky version copied and pasted into an email from work late on fri.

    and, arse, bollocks and tit, that’s a gremlin about years of life lost, the sentence wasnt supposed to be in the final version, it came from a friend’s slides and i didn’t have time to find the ref, i meant to go with “suicide biggest cause death males aged 15-24″ or something more certain.

    years of life lost is basically subtract age at death from 75, suicide is certainly a big cause, the claim in my friend’s slides was that suicide was 3rd biggest behind cardiovascular and cancer, i was dubious, we discussed it on fri, he couldnt remember wtf it came from, i wondered if it might have been a kludge of something like this since he’s australian

    www.mja.com.au/public/issues/171_11_061299/mvdw/mvdw.html

    anyway it’s quite possible it’s cock, and if it is, i’ll bung the readers editor a correction, no worries at all, always good to correct these things uncontroversially and in good spirit.

  11. frontierpsychiatrist said,

    January 24, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Of course you are making the assumption that everyone who commits suicide is depressed which is not necessarily the case. And of course the concept of ‘depression’ is seriously flawed.

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 24, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    “Of course you are making the assumption that everyone who commits suicide is depressed which is not necessarily the case.”

    i don;t think i am, or if i am i dont mean to, because i dont believe that to be true. seasonality in suicide is one of many reasonable imperfect measures of whether season has an impact on mood. and the claims about blue monday aren’t specifically about depression, they’re about mood.

    “And of course the concept of ‘depression’ is seriously flawed.”

    absolutely agreed again, there was a para about that in my original version but i cut it before i even sent it in because it was 950 words or something by that time, and it usually gets cut to between 500 and 800.

  13. emen said,

    January 24, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    “and the claims about blue monday aren’t specifically about depression, they’re about mood”

    ah, that’s exactly what I mean,
    hadn’t seen that before I posted

  14. jodyaberdein said,

    January 24, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Somewhat characteristically the mail online refused to post my comment suggesting that 6/8/1945 might have been a strong contender for the title.

  15. fredsie said,

    January 24, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Is something weird happening with the clock here? The last post shows 12:25 and here in Liverpool it’s only 11:59. (Yes, maybe we’re a bit behind the times up here).

  16. fredsie said,

    January 24, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Trouble is, life expectancy has been improved dramatically over the last 100 years, so someone dying at 25 today has lost many more “life years” than someone dying at 25 in 1950. Not a very transparent measure.

  17. spk76 said,

    January 24, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    thepoisongarden – “I assume you’re the author of that piece.”
    Okay… Why would you assume that? Weird.

  18. FhnuZoag said,

    January 24, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    I don’t know if you are right about this, Ben. Specific locations may have specific reasons to be depressed, but well, I still don’t think it’s very unexpected for there to be some seasonal effect, probably mediated by weather and social events. (Like exams!)

    Unscientific but fun is:

    www.google.com/trends?q=depression%2C+rain&ctab=0&geo=all&date=all&sort=0

  19. FhnuZoag said,

    January 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Of course, it’s total rubbish that Jan 19th was the most depressing day in history. Why would you be depressed knowing that Bush would be out of office tommorrow?

  20. JQH said,

    January 24, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Bush fans and other right-wing nutters would have been depressed.

  21. The Biologista said,

    January 24, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I’m confused as to how the Daily Mail made the leap from most depressing day of the year to most depressing in all of history…

    Anyway they make a prediction with their theory:

    “up to a quarter of workers are expected to call in sick, research suggests”

    Did they? Did the Daily Mail follow up on this? I’d fall over from shock if they actually sought to verify their… total crap.

  22. Kess said,

    January 24, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Ben – out of interest who at the Guardian cuts your articles? Is it someone with scientific knowledge who you have confidence in to edit your stuff sensibly, or are you left to the mercy of some random junior hack or sub-editor?

  23. seventhrib said,

    January 24, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    OT, but – congrats Ben on an excellent talk today at the Tate Modern. The whole thing (moronic audience members and the meandering and dull Gillian Beer aside) was extremely enjoyable and fascinating, and even though your material was familiar to me from the book and the columns it didn’t feel remotely repetitive or boring. Loved the endless list of equation stories, too.

    I thought you nestled in very comfortably with the other heavyweight intellectuals, and were set apart only by youth and vivaciousness. I was going to add your full head of hair, but then I remembered AC Grayling. Crikey.

  24. mikewhit said,

    January 24, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Has anyone trying to post a conflicting comment against an item on the DM website ever had it published ?

    Incidentally the Graun’s print of Ben’s version didn’t get the italics in your “You’d guess.” – don’t think their typeface has an italic font …

  25. brainduck said,

    January 25, 2009 at 3:50 am

    On the ‘years of life lost’ thing – when I’m not shouting at the bean-bag chuckers, I do a sideline in ranting about mental health & illness* internationally, esp Least Developed Countries.

    Anyway, here’s lots of stats & refs on absolute years of life lost, DALYs, etc etc, for all sorts of mental health stuff around the world, esp. Least Developed Countries:

    brainduck.wordpress.com/2008/04/03/mental-health-poverty-in-the-developing-world/

    Roughly speaking, whilst MI is an important cause of mortality (WHO reckon ~877,000 completed suicides annually, 86% of them in LDCs, not counting indirect deaths, substance abuse, etc), the really big hit is ‘Disability-Adjusted Life Years’, because people are often ill for a long time, with a crap quality of life. This of course goes on to have all sorts of wider socio-economic costs for the affected person & very often their family.

    Mental illness constitutes 12-14% of the Global Burden of Disease, but only 1% of global health expenditure. If you think the UK lacks awareness of the scale of the problem, try internationally. In Kolkata they still put ‘non-criminal lunatics’ in prisons indefinitely. Trying to raise funds / awareness for international MH is difficult – far away & too uncomfortable & complicated a topic.

    See friendsofantarauk.org/context if you really want more geek-ness, or just go straight to the WHO: www.who.int/mental_health/en/

    *yes, there is such a thing, no, in developing countries people don’t just ‘have more important things to worry about’ / ‘have such wonderful community support to make it all better’, and Dr Derek Summerfield called me a ‘new missionary’ & is Wrong. Grr, rant.

  26. jodyaberdein said,

    January 25, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Well the two comments I have tried to post, one slightly inane referred to above, and another quite serious on their totally reckless MMR scare have both yet to appear.

    Comments made= 2, comments published = 0.

    Perhaps we should subject this phenomenon to further study?

  27. pseudomonas said,

    January 25, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Something I’ve been wondering: the date obviously doesn’t fall out of the “equation” – so who goes around declaring when the magic day is any given year?

  28. andy green said,

    January 25, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Your article reveals a woeful naivety and failure to understand how communications functions – and in particular, how the media works – with your lame plea for getting ‘depression, like social isolation, stressful life events, neighbourhood social disorder, poverty, child abuse, and the rest. Get those in the news, I dare you’. Also evident is hubris of using concepts such as logic and ‘data’ as the only tools to understand the world around us.

    All driven by a petty, ‘Lord of the Flies’-like school playground vendetta against a decent man, the psychologist Cliff Arnall.

    Any reality will have a million and one causes. To overcome this complexity we use heuristics, rules of thumb to provide a paradigm to help us to simplify and understand. Hence, a formula using a number of factors, all individually recognised as sensible elements within the complexity of the issue, provides a starting point for discussion on wider issues.

    You condemn ‘Blue Monday’ as bullshit yet fail to recognise its changing context, ignoring its significant paradigm shift. Original news announcements of Cliff Arnall’s formula used phrases like ‘scientifically proven’. Read current usage of the formula under the label of ‘Blue Monday’ you will find the formula is used within a context of it ‘providing the symbolic day’. Hello, the situation has changed – you seem to have overlooked this fact.

    Why is it that hard-nosed people like those you quote on the ‘Sun’ or ‘Daily Expressl’ want to print a story about ‘the most depressing day of the year’. Were they overwhelmed by the power of Cliff Arnall’s name or insight of formula?

    No, they were picking up on a story that somehow provided a bridge to people’s current reality, mood, and feelings. The story is harnessing a meme, the DNA of communication. This is a body of information that replicates itself of its own volition. There is an emotional undercurrent, although not documented by scientific data, but evident if you ask people on an emotional level how they feel, where towards the end of January period is a ‘blue’ time.

    Those now promoting this message have merely harnessed this meme, branded it with the name ‘Blue Monday’ and directed this body of information towards achieving a social and cultural good – to help the work of charities who don’t often find it easy to get media coverage of their valuable work.

    What I suspect we are witnessing is that festivities, such as Christmas, were developed by our ancestors to provide a fillip, an injection of feel-good into the bleak mid-winter. We now probably experience a mid-season dip, between the mid-winter festivities and spring, which Blue Monday, the third Monday in January provides a focal point for capturing this mood.

    You freely use the word ‘bullshit’ to dismiss people with a different world view to yours. The world could be enriched by a new term, distinct from ‘bullshit’ called ‘snideshit’: a term to describe sad, negative opinions, containing misleading or false statements used, like children in a playground, to pick on an easy-to-hit victim.

    It is a pity you are using snideshit to promote awareness of your own petty vendetta against Cliff Arnall.

    I’ll leave you with a symbolic formula to sum up how I feel about your article:

    G+O+O²+D = Beat Blue Monday
    S+N+I+D+E

    where
    G = Desire to create good to make the world a better place
    O = Available meme and publicity skills
    O² = Public and media receptiveness
    D = Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world

    S = Intelligent individuals
    N = Too much time on their hands
    I = Inadequate fact-checking
    D = Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world
    E = Easy target

    PS: I am the PR guy who is behind the Blue Monday campaign. The offer made on the Mind Hacks blog, of a public meeting, avoiding the anonymity of on-line discussions, to discus these issues is still open. Any takers?

  29. spk76 said,

    January 25, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Mr Green – It’s a shame you utterly fail to get the point your critics are making.

    Please read Dr Petra’s blog to understand where those with this ‘different world view’ to your own are coming from:

    www.drpetra.co.uk/blog/?p=777

    And check here for an intriguing insight into Mr Arnall’s ‘corrosive, meaningless, empty, bogus nonsense':

    www.badscience.net/2006/12/mediaslut-ideas-money-corporatewhore/

  30. Jamie Horder said,

    January 25, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Andy, you’re in a hole. For God’s sake stop digging, save yourself at least a little dignity.

  31. The Biologista said,

    January 25, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    brainduck, jody,

    I also have attempted to post comments on the Daily Mail website. I responded to the rubbish MMR article a few days ago and it has not been published.

    Try saying something like “when will labour learn that triple jabs are too dangerous and we don’t need them- this is just more of the government keeping big pharma happy at the expense of our children”. I’m pretty sure that’ll be up within 24 hours.

  32. The Biologista said,

    January 25, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    “Why is it that hard-nosed people like those you quote on the ‘Sun’ or ‘Daily Expressl’ want to print a story about ‘the most depressing day of the year’. Were they overwhelmed by the power of Cliff Arnall’s name or insight of formula?

    No, they were picking up on a story that somehow provided a bridge to people’s current reality, mood, and feelings.”

    Or, you know, they were filling pages quickly and efficiently. As long as the content is dense enough to deflect casual investigation then it does it’s job. Shifts copies, sells advertising space. I’m sure the papers are interested in people’s moods and feelings, inasmuch as they are important marketing targets.

  33. brainduck said,

    January 25, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Andy Green – you are in Wakefield, right? I’d be happy to meet up & interview you for my blog, any time after the 1st. I’m a psychology graduate with a fair bit of experience in mental health fundraising, so I’m all too used to the way you have to ‘package’ MH to get media attention.
    You can contact me on brainquack at gmail dot com if you’d like to arrange something – appreciate I’m not exactly a proper journo but my blog’s been mentioned in Ben’s column & on Mind Hacks before.

    Andy Green: ‘We now probably experience a mid-season dip, between the mid-winter festivities and spring’
    ‘There is an emotional undercurrent, although not documented by scientific data, but evident if you ask people on an emotional level how they feel, where towards the end of January period is a ‘blue’ time’
    This is a testable hypothesis, it would probably be do-able as an undergrad project. Ben’s provided various references suggesting that your hypothesis is not supported by the data. If you have data we don’t know about, please let us know.

    DNA is not ‘a body of information that replicates itself of its own volition.’ You could argue that a gene in the context of an organism / ecosystem might be. DNA is just a complicated chemical, meaningless outside the context of a cell & organism. You may wish to reflect on the meaninglessness of context-free information.

  34. thepoisongarden said,

    January 25, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    andy green posted ‘Original news announcements of Cliff Arnall’s formula used phrases like ‘scientifically proven’.’

    And in his own blog www.greenblog.co.uk/2009/01/08/perils-of-wikipedia-with-bbm/ asserts, when talking about the first outing of this story, in 2005, ‘At the time no one questioned the mathematical veracity of the equation’.

    I suppose referring to it as coming from ‘some shonky Portakabin campus from a rainy bumhole of a town in the middle of Britain which will comply with any daft-arse publicity stunt in the hope of attracting students who can read.’ www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/giles_coren/article504799.ece is a bit broader than just going for the maths but it does make Mr Green’s attempt to show that people are picking on him for being nice a little hollow.

  35. andy green said,

    January 25, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    It will be a pleasure to meet up with brainduck – and anyone else out there – to constructively explore the different languages of the science and media worlds – and how they can be bridged to progress different agendas.

    The potential of some form of project to test out hypothesis of mid winter blues is also appealing.

    Hope some further positives may come from this.

  36. spk76 said,

    January 25, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Mr Green – perhaps you would be kind enough to answer how you think an open discussion could happen in a private meeting? You’re promoting nonsense publicly, so you are being criticised publicly. Rather odd that a PR company isn’t comfortable with public debate but there you go.

    www.mindhacks.com/blog/2009/01/how_does_it_feel.html

  37. brainduck said,

    January 25, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Yes, as Mr Green’s PR company claims to specialise in ‘social media’ and even ‘crisis communication’, it does seem a bit odd & old-fashioned to be insisting on a meatspace meeting. Still, I’m happy to crowdsource questions, and with Mr Green’s permission will MP3 our meeting & podcast it for further comment & analysis.

    Looking at ‘some form of project to test out hypothesis of mid winter blues’ is a bit late really when you’ve already set up a whole PR event around this idea. I’d rather assumed that you’d already have some data, given that Ben’s trawl of the literature (& my background knowledge – on suicide rates alone, admittedly not a great proxy, you’d be looking at Jan 1st) suggests there isn’t a particularly clear-cut pattern.

    The ONS only appears to have British suicide rates aggregated annually – anyone know if the disaggregated data is up anywhere?

  38. andy green said,

    January 25, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    In response to spk76 – we’re certainly not uncomfortable about any public debate.

    In fact we’re keen to extend the debate further in other ways where one distateful dimension to this saga is the snide side of things, which I feel social media can exacerbate, where people make half a comment in a text or resort to snide asides.

    Cliff Arnall has been the target of some real nasty,odious e mails and stuff posted on the web about him. Firing a crossbow in his forehead was one that comes to mind.

    Where certain comments were made against Cliff he did take legal advice and then you find this constantly thrown up in debate in a snide way.

    So, an open meeting perhaps could make some real progress here.

    Nothing to hide – indeed, the opposite.

  39. spk76 said,

    January 25, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Well the person who wrote the crossbow comment had this to say on the matter:

    “I wrote that Cliff could write an equation to figure out the best day to get shot through the face with a crossbow, and then prove it. I didn’t say he should get shot through the face with a crossbow, I was making a comment about the nonsense of the industry he was courting. “Formula shows Best Day To Get Shot Through the Face with a Crossbow next Saturday!” Something like that.

    The whole crossbow-bolt/face interface scenario was taken (and misquoted I realise now) from The Day Today; a satire on News reporting which seemed apt…”

    www.mindhacks.com/blog/2009/01/how_does_it_feel.html

  40. Psychedelia Smith said,

    January 25, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Hmm: ‘hidebound by logic’? I think not. The thing that irritates me about people who make cheap po-mo jabs at criticising logic (usually making a logical error in doing so) is that they think it’s somehow ‘cold’ and lacking in emotion. It isn’t – just study it. It’s simply a tool for justifying valid inferences. The content of the propositions used can be anything you like.

    In fact, isn’t the point of cognitive behavioural therapy to apply logical thinking to emotions in order to help people develop a coherent response to depression??

  41. spk76 said,

    January 25, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Additionally, the claims that there is some sort of vendetta against this decent man really doesn’t hold water.

    Mr Arnell has put his “equations” in the public domain and has had no qualms attaching his name to these mathematically impossible and scientifically meaningless nonsense. As such, he must surely be prepared to stand up to the robust criticism that has come his way. After all, he is in his own words, a “media slut”.

    Such claims of victimisation, vendettas etc. are heard time and again from the scientists when hit with the brick bat of scientific rigour, objective rationality and cold hard sense. The homeopaths, anti-vax lobby, nutrutionists etc. all appear to exhibit this victimhood complex and seem to believe their beliefs should be above criticism and analysis.

    To take just one recent example, supporters of the boss of the most expensive meals on wheels service ever, similarly felt she was an upright woman doing a good honest job and her claims should be protected from any rational evaluation.

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/10/detox-box-bad-science

    But these people have willingly put themselves in the spotlight. They promote their businesses and publicise their equations and theories under the glare of the mass media, so a bit of vigorous debate regarding their claims is hardly surprising.

    The problem, which you singularly fail to appreciate, is that all the pseudoscience permeating the media only serves to mislead the public and devalues genuine science.

  42. spk76 said,

    January 25, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    Of course, that should be:

    Such claims of victimisation, vendettas etc. are heard time and again from the pseudoscientists when hit with the brick bat of scientific rigour, objective rationality and cold hard sense.

  43. pv said,

    January 25, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    to constructively explore the different languages of the science and media worlds – and how they can be bridged to progress different agendas.

    Am I the only one for whom the words pretentious and twaddle come to mind?

  44. hat_eater said,

    January 25, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    I am sorry, it is late in my part of the world, and I’m tired, so at the moment the only way the languages of the media and science can be “bridged” is you grasp firmly one end of a bridge and beat the shit out of the media people with the other end until they realise that their language is just a subset of the all encompassing science language.

    If something is too complicated to understand for the average Joe (and I agree with Ben that media people underestimate their readers) it’s their bloody duty to explain it in plain language. Not to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator with a pot plant and make shit up.

  45. Jamie Horder said,

    January 26, 2009 at 12:28 am

    Stop being so snide, everyone. You snide, snideful sniders.

  46. Jeremy said,

    January 26, 2009 at 1:57 am

    Can somebody please reassure me that Andy Green is just a fictional character from a Ricky Gervaise comedy?

  47. jackpt said,

    January 26, 2009 at 2:11 am

    fm = (1.0001 + 1 * 10**-2 * f)**p

    Fail magnification factor where f is existing fail as a percentage, and p is occurrences of post modernism. (note the Sokal paper’s fail is zero, and the occurrences of post modernism only have a negligible effect on the magnification factor).

    “Also evident is hubris of using concepts such as logic and ‘data’ as the only tools to understand the world around us.”

    Lol.

  48. NorthernBoy said,

    January 26, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Mr Green, may I recommend that you try readng “Plain Words”. It is an excellent book for people who seek to write concisely, and who all into the trap of putting in big words and complicated sentence structures because they think that it lends weight to their arguments.

    All that your post above did was to make you come across as a petulant youth, who wants to rant, yet who does not have the tools to do so adequately.

    I am sure that this is nowhere near the truth, so would hope that you would take this advice in the spirit in which it is intended.

    The horrors of an apparently innumerate correspondent attempting to make a point with meaningless equations (as you do above), by the way, makes your defence of the equations in question laughable. I do not think that Mr Arnall will than you for this contribution.

  49. jodyaberdein said,

    January 26, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Apologies for being a little slow on the uptake.

    Is it actually true that someone who works in the PR industry wrote a comment about intelligent individuals failing to address real world issues?

    Sorry, just the immensity of this meant that it took all those posts for it to sink in.

  50. js said,

    January 26, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    January is clearly the wrong time anyway – an earlier source than Esquirol, Burns wrote in 1795 “…I am in a complete Decemberish humour, gloomy,
    sullen, stupid, as even the Deity of Dulness herself could wish…” – a whole month before “Blue Monday”.

    Summer suicide peaks may be somewhat misleading. As Brits we are only truly happy when there is something to complain about, so one might expect the suicide rate to fall during the darkest months.

  51. NorthernBoy said,

    January 26, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Further to the above, the book that I recommend to Mr Green is available here,

    www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-Plain-Words-Ernest-Gowers/dp/0140511997

    I would recommend it for anyone who needs to express themselves clearly in writing. As well as excising irrelevant and unnecessarily diverting circumlocutions, it will give the author an unerring ability to expunge, cast-out, dethrone displace (and replace) sentences such as this one, in the name of actually getting your point across well.

  52. Nutritious Terrapin said,

    January 26, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    this sort of episode simply reinforces the shocking truth about the power of the media in society and their ability to sway or influence the average public opinion. Guess it must have been a quiet day in the office for everyone to sieze on the Blue-Monday nonsense as newsworthy. That goes for all the newspapers that wasted their time dwelling on this nonesnse. (Oops, that would include you as well, Ben!)

  53. Wonko said,

    January 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Isn’t this agonising over unhappiness just the other side of the government and third sector guff about “happiness”?

    Being “unhappy” is not the same as being depressed – a condition that is more about exhaustion, impaired capacity, loss of memory and concentration, etc – and the equating of mental illness with unhappiness serves only to demean the lived experience of those unfortunate to go through episodes of mental illness.

    All the focus on “unhappiness” does is to perpetuate one of the stigmas around depression – that we’ve all been there when, in fact, less than 20% have been there. The focus on middle class “affluenza” that accompanies this debate detracts from the reality that the mental illness and suicide hotspots in the UK are those that experience the greatest deprivation – eg, East Glasgow, Belfast, the Northeast of England and most of South Wales – Wales has a child suicide rate 5 times higher than England! news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/4673920.stm

    Sometimes these issues do get into the news. But the “happiness agenda” tends to trump them with a media/political class that wants simple explanations and magic wand solutions (Prozac, CBT, Ecotherapy for f*** sake!) rather than address the real mess that some of our communities and the people who live in them have got into.

  54. tom-p said,

    January 26, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Ben, why did you mention the names of Arnall’s corporate Sponsors? By doing so you just made him more money.
    You could have said ‘a travel agent’ and ‘an ice cream company’, which would have deprived the douchebags who paid for his crap of the exposure they want and deprived Arnall of yet more filthy lucre.

  55. SimonCox said,

    January 26, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Andy Green: “G+O+O²+D = Beat Blue Monday
    S+N+I+D+E

    where
    G = Desire to create good to make the world a better place
    O = Available meme and publicity skills
    O² = Public and media receptiveness
    D = Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world

    S = Intelligent individuals
    N = Too much time on their hands
    I = Inadequate fact-checking
    D = Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world
    E = Easy target”

    Andy, that first equation of yours is awesome. I love the way that you’ve squared the second “O”, just like a real scientist! But I’m disappointed to note that inclusion of “D” on the left hand side of the equation means that Beat Blue Monday is partly “Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world”.

    As for the second one, S+N+I+D+E, this is really revolutionary. A mathematical equation without an equals sign! That is just heuristic to the max.

    Here’s an equation for you; you’ll probably just call it snide, but if you do then you are being staggeringly naive as it is just a heuristic way of expressing a symbolic representation of what you appear to be doing:

    (Yo+Ur)/F+O+R+M+U+L+A = S+H+I+T

    Where Yo, Ur, F, O, R, M, U, L, A, S, H, I and T are all arbitrary values.

    Excuse me, I have to go – I think I just shifted one of my paradigms.

  56. CampFreddie said,

    January 26, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    You mean Andy Green isn’t an elaborate Poe’s Law satire?

    I think we’re all quite aware of what heuristics, paradigm shifts and memes are.
    Blue Monday is a powerful meme, but hardly a paradigm shift. As an heuristic, if fails, since it is true only for about 1 in 365 people.

    However, there is a powerful meme which says that people who work for PR companies are asshats. I’ve found that this simple heuristic has a very high specificity and low false positive rate.

  57. pluckybow said,

    January 26, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Just a quick post to mention that the first time I heard about this equation was when I overheard several clinical trial staff at my workplace discussing it in a totally uncritical way.

    That was an uneasy lunchtime for me.

  58. The Biologista said,

    January 27, 2009 at 12:07 am

    Plucky,

    Having worked for a CRO myself, I’m totally unsurprised. You should consider yourself lucky to have gotten a break from the never-ending discussion of Celebrity Big Brother.

  59. HowardW said,

    January 27, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    This is probably a misguided train of thought, but anyway:

    Can anyone enlighten me (and others) as to how Cliff Arnall obtained the result “19th January” from his “formula” for calculating the most depressing/miserable day of the year.

    The formula quoted by the Mirror article is:

    D = N + M (T+1) C R (B-S)/J.

    where:
    D = disaster
    N = natural disasters
    M = man-made disasters
    T = temperature
    C = post-Christmas gloom
    R = number of New Year’s resolutions broken
    B = borrowing
    S = salary
    J = job security

    Specifically, if anyone could clarify the ranges/units of the above that would be a good start. e.g. are N and M the *number* of disasters? cumulative over the year? Is temperature in Celsius? Kelvin? and temperature of what? when?

    If you get 19 for D as your answer, does that mean January 19th?

    What values were used to get the 19th Jan answer?

    Although I believe the “formula” to be, well, not really a formula, I would genuinely like to know how values for each of the right-hand side “variables” should be measured/deduced, and how the result for D should be interpreted.

    Howard

  60. The Biologista said,

    January 27, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Howard,

    I’m gonna guess that D is some arbitrary score that we get when we input the variables for a given day. We can then compare the days of the year using that score and arrive at our bullshit answer. The Daily Mail, presumably, input the data for every day in HISTORY and then found the one with the best/worst score. They must have, surely?

  61. EleanorC said,

    January 27, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    The mind boggles to think how Arnall might have attempted to quantify “R = number of New Year’s resolutions broken” across a population.

    (If it helps, my score for R = 0. Not because I haven’t broken any, but because I didn’t make any.)

  62. NorthernBoy said,

    January 27, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    You just need to note that it is not even vaguely cyclical to see that it is BS. IT takes no account of the seasons, or the holidays scattered throughout the year, and there can be no possible justification for having natural disasters unmodified by other variables, but man-made disasters being acted on by temperature.

    That an academic put their name to this really goes a long way to showing that a carer in academia is a very poor indication for having a great mind.

  63. NorthernBoy said,

    January 27, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Or even a career…

    Bugger.

  64. diceman said,

    January 28, 2009 at 12:26 am

    What most annoys me about all these formula stories is the way they try to assign a value to something that is relative to the person who’s reading it. Plus, of course, the units issue.

    For example take something like pain.

    If you asked me to rate a particular pain on a scale of 1-10. My base line for 10 is a broken pelvis suffered whilst also breaking a wrist and a knee plus impact damage to an area that shall remain nameless.

    Somebody else who’s been fortunate enough to not suffer anything worse than a hangnail has a totally different base line.

    If your calling these science then you need to go get a good dictionary.

  65. thepoisongarden said,

    January 28, 2009 at 9:10 am

    diceman,

    Used properly, which, of course, doesn’t always happen, the pain scale is a slightly useful measure of relativity in an individual.

    ‘Yesterday my pain was 5 but after I took your drug my pain was 3.’

    (That doesn’t mean your drug reduced my pain. It might just be that you’ve been kind enough to ask about me, so I feel better.)

    Anyone who said ‘you are in 7 pain whereas he is in 3, so I will treat you first’ would be seriously awry.

  66. pv said,

    January 29, 2009 at 1:23 am

    diceman said,
    January 28, 2009 at 12:26 am

    What most annoys me about all these formula stories is the way they try to assign a value to something that is relative to the person who’s reading it.

    You mean like a horoscope? Hmm.

  67. Junkmonkey said,

    February 1, 2009 at 2:16 am

    I’m depressed that there have been 78 comments about Blue Monday and no one has mentioned New Order once yet…

  68. emen said,

    February 1, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Is it just me or there really was no BS column in the Guardian this week?

    Maybe Ben’s on holiday and that’s something everbody knows.

  69. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 1, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    soz my bad, no col, will post something else in a bit. also some really quite good fun stuff in the pipeline.

  70. DrJon said,

    February 1, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Emen (80) – Depends what you mean by BS :)

    Thanks Ben!

  71. emen said,

    February 1, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    DrJon :-DDD, there probably was!

    Ah, thanks Ben!

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  74. andybodders said,

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    www.happymonday.info/.

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