December 13th, 2005
A few weeks ago my mobile rang just as I was in the middle of trying to balance a stack of books, open a door and have a conversation with a colleague. That was an indication it was a journalist because I only seem to get calls from the media when I have my hands full.
Sure enough it was a journalist from a woman’s magazine who wanted some help with a feature. Waving goodbye to my colleague and setting down my books I asked how I could help.
‘Well it’s like this. I’ve got a feature where we’ve described all the bits of a man’s body, his wallet, his eyes, his six-pack and there’s a test to go with it. We want you to explain the psychology of personality based on what girls are attracted to. Also what the girl is like in bed based on what part of the guy she picks’
I explained I couldn’t really help because there wasn’t really any evidence to support the quiz, and that it wasn’t really a very accurate way to diagnose someone’s behaviour in bed.
‘Yes I know that’ said the journalist ‘but this is just for fun. Can’t you tell me what it says about a girl’s sex personality anyway?’
I said I wish I could be more useful but since the evidence suggests categorising people restricts sexual behaviour and there wasn’t really any science underpinning the quiz on this occasion I really couldn’t help.
Unfazed the journalist tried another tack
‘Oh can’t you just be nice?’ she wheedled.
‘Nice?’ I replied
‘Yes nice’ she said ‘you know, just tell me what I want, help me out here, give me a quote that lends some science to my quiz’
I gently tried to point out I thought I had been nice, or at least honest. I’d explained why I couldn’t help – and that there really wasn’t any science behind the quiz – so I thought I was being nice and fair by being upfront about it.
‘Well that’s being scientific, but I need you to be nice’
Ah now I get it. Being scientific really means giving your name to something that isn’t very accurate and may be unethical or wrong, but an expert title beside an idea (no matter how flaky) makes it ‘scientific’. And being ‘nice’ means telling a journalist what they want to hear (or more specifically what their editor wants to hear).Tweet