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The perfect phwoarmula – yet more maths misuse, shoddy science and sexism

May 4th, 2007

Dr Petra

We’ve got used to seeing mathematical formulas being misused within PR campaigns. Things like the most depressing or happiest day of the year (courtesy of Cliff Arnall), how to have a top snog, or the formula for the ‘perfect breast’.

The Sun paper, in an attempt to get a bit more attention for Page 3 have got ‘boob boffins’ to create a ‘phwoarmula for the perfect Page 3 girl’. Apparently it’s 34D beauty Keeley who was ‘the closest match to their complex equation for the ultimate pin up’.

According to The Sun experts ‘quizzed hundreds of fellas about their favourite Sun pin ups to produce the sum’ which is S = 0.4c ÷ Hd (1 – FL / FW) squared + Bw squared ÷ BL (T + e 0.33a + WH).

S refers to boob shape which is important (although apparently hair colour, nose and mouth type don’t make any difference to women’s sex appeal). FL = face length and FW = face width (men apparently prefer models with round faces and small foreheads = Hd). Eye colour – c – is important – darker eyes apparently add ‘to a babe’s popularity’.

The perfect body is measured by the length (BL) and width (BW) of a woman’s boobs, with “the general rule is the bigger the better but pertness plays an important part too”. W = a small waist and H= narrow hips, whilst a = smaller nipples and T = shorter body length.

The research was led by Dr David Grainger who according to The Sun is from “top medical research lab Pronostics, in Cambridge”. He’s reported as saying “Of all the girls that we looked at, Keeley was definitely the closest to the formula….But there isn’t just one solution to this – there are lots of ways to look sexy as the rest of The Sun’s Page 3 girls prove!”

Pronostics are “a new and revolutionary medical diagnostics company” and according to their website they create medical diagnostics based on biological profiling. The company develops new technologies and also runs clinical trials. It appears to have affiliations with Cambridge University. Worryingly it also seems to think that this latest phwoarmula is worth shouting about as they sent out a press release about it!.

Since there seemed to be a number of unanswered questions about the phwoarmula I emailed David Grainger at Pronostics asking him:

“The Sun’s coverage mentions that hundreds of men were questioned to produce the formula. Can you confirm how many men were questioned, how they were targeted and whether any ethical approval was sought for this research?

Was the study conducted through Pronostics or as a separate venture?

How much were you or Pronostics paid for the research?

Did you create the formula or did a PR company or other organisation facilitate this?

Is Pronostics linked with the University of Cambridge and if so was the research completed by UoC staff or as a separate venture?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve heard nothing back. Of course if I do get a reply I will put it on the blog. I wonder why they were so keen to promote the phwoarmula in the Sun and their own publicity material but less willing to discuss the wider science behind the story with colleagues?

This is another example of people with links to academic institutions completing PR research on a dodgy topic. I appreciate research funding is hard to come by and some academics have argued that sometimes PR money allows them to answer a fun question that’s been bugging them that they wouldn’t get cash to research otherwise. Maybe in this case everyone at Pronostics lab were sitting around wishing they could develop a means of vetting female attractiveness but only had funding to develop medical diagnostics. It really isn’t clear why a company that appears to be reputable and linked to running clinical trials also does PR research of this kind for The Sun. It certainly raises ethical questions about the competency of those engaged in research at that organisation.

The link between academia and PR research is currently very blurred. Some institutions are very clear that staff are not allowed to do PR types of studies and insist staff who engage in approved wider commercial ventures have to pay a proportion of their profits to their university. Other institutions have a view that any publicity is good publicity and don’t seem to care what their staff get up to.

In many cases where an expert or ‘boffin’ is linked to a college or organisation you may well find this is a very tenuous link indeed (Cliff Arnall’s a good example of this as he claims to be part of Cardiff University while the University argue he’s not a member of their staff). It is easier when a staff member engages in PR research their college dislikes as they can take disciplinary action – although how often this happens is debatable.

It becomes even more of a grey area when you have people working in organisations with affiliations to academic institutions (as in this case). At that point nobody seems clear who is responsible for overseeing research, ethical practice or just good standards. So if a commercial company wants to do some PR fluff for cash there’s not much that can be done about it.

Well, there is one thing. You can report organisations that seem to be engaging in unethical work, or where you see professionals espousing sexist or other prejudiced views you can complain to the university or professional body who employs them.

PR companies deliberately target academics or academic-related staff in a means to give greater credibility to their stories, but the whole time this happens it will lead to the public taking science less seriously – and blocking kosher science stories from getting into the media.

I know a load of scientists and journalists moan about this ongoing PR problem, but we do have the power to tackle it – and we don’t even need a made up formula to tell us how.

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