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Fake formulae – why they’re more than just a maths problem

December 15th, 2008

Dr Petra

As you may know, one thing that winds me up nearly as much as dodgy surveys for PR purposes it’s using fake formulae to promote products. The formulae I’ve taken most issue with have been those supposedly identifying ‘perfect’ breast and sizes or what the ideal Page 3 girl’s vital statistics should be, although there have been formula created for just about any purpose you can imagine – anything from the perfect consistency of a biscuit through to which day of the year is the most depressing.

None of the formulae ever really make any mathematical sense, but then they’re not supposed to. They are designed simply to get a product mentioned in the papers. And that message is always emphasised by the appearance of a ‘scientist’, ‘psychologist’, or ‘boffin’ (often from Cambridge University) who will give weight to the maths. They can get pretty shirty if you tell them their formulae don’t make any sense – or have been written for them by a PR company. But despite invitations from the media and other scientists to defend their work none have so far accepted challenges to the accuracy of their formula. Instead they make the claim that they are leading the way in science communication or are using these PR opportunities to raise our interest in psychology, science, or mathematics. You can see this defence in action on the BBC Radio Four programme More or Less

Which brings me nicely to Ben Goldacre’s most recent Bad Science column where he talks about the latest fake formula addressing boob size. It’s another example of using formula to promote a product, a key tool used by PR companies (that is when they’re not doing shonky surveys). Ben draws upon the work over at Apathy Sketchpad Blog where they’ve systematically kept track of these stupid sums – and there are a lot to get through.

This is an issue that seems to get statisticians and some scientists hot under the collar, but the media and wider society don’t really seem to care. After all, everyone knows these are just a bit of fun – nobody thinks they’re really mathematically sound, do they?

From speaking to journalists about this my understanding is they know the fake formula PR stories they are sent are nonsensical. However, they don’t refuse to carry them because their editors are putting pressure on them to fill space and these ‘light’ stories have a bit of maths in them to give them enough gravitas to be worth printing. And although journalists know the formula probably make no sense they don’t have the maths confidence to take them apart. So they continue to get coverage.

Whether the public believe them is unclear.

Academics continue to front such formulae because either they’re not really employed in any academic department and have to make cash through PR quotes, or because their heads of department or Vice Chancellors don’t really seem to care if they front such nonsense. Indeed, I’ve got it on good authority that at one new university an academic is continually allowed to front such campaigns because the high-ups at the institution consider it good publicity. His colleagues feel the work brings their own practice into disrepute and devalues what they are doing. But they are powerless to do anything about it.

These are the reasons we’ll continue to see the fake formulae continue to be used as PR tools. That, and the fact that when scientists raise their objections they do so purely on a surface level of discussing whether the formula add up.

This misses the very real story here, which is that while some formula about perfect bacon butties don’t really do much harm (apart from promoting bad maths) many of the formula set up worrying standards of physical perfection or misprepresent mental health issues. There are major ethical questions to be asked about the involvement of academics – particularly psychologists – in fronting such campaigns when our codes of conduct and the wider body of health evidence warns us against medicalising behaviour or contributing to body image worries.

If someone is keen to front formula promoting perfect breasts and bums surely this raises questions about people they may also meet within teaching, research and therapy settings? Can you truly argue you are bringing science to society by acting as a judge at the ‘rear of the year’ competition, a gig you got through fronting formula about ‘perfect bodies’?

This PR approach is unlikely to go away because it is very cheap to produce (the formula is usually made up for someone to front and they’re bunged a few hundred quid to act as a spokesperson). You’re almost guaranteed print coverage. Why stop?

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