We have to talk. Every week there is another faked survey, another bogus ‘equation’ story, all planted to sell a product.
Last week, it was ‘scientists have found the equation for the sexiest walk’, but that wasn’t really an isolated incident: there was the most miserable day of the year (Sky travel), the happiest day of the year (Wall’s ice cream), and the perfect minibreak (where the formula was so ham-fistedly concocted that if you stayed at home with a travel time of zero, you had an infinitely good weekend).
The archives at badscience.net are overflowing with examples. And let’s not forget the Bravo Evolution Report on the future of the human species (Bravo TV), which generated the headline in The Sun, ‘All men will have big willies’.
This would all be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that your work is the dominant theme in science reporting. We have to accept, as you know, that newspapers are run by flaky humanities graduates. But one thing is clear from your phenomenal success at getting these stories into the papers: editors actually believe that what you send them is science news.
What you’re engaged in here is a war on the public understanding of science. These equations tell us nothing; they sell only the idea that scientists are irrelevant boffins who make stuff up.
In my world, making stuff up is wrong.
When Clarion Communications was named in The Guardian’s Bad Science column last week for having conducted ‘research’ via internal email about which clients have the sexiest walk, the PR industry did not rush to the defence of the WPP-owned agency. However, some PROs were more forgiving than others, even admitting to having cooked up some dubious research of their own.
eBay head of PR Richard Kanareck claimed Clarion is not unique in creating a research-based story with little statistical reliability. He recalled that during his time at The Red Consultancy, he based a client pitch around a formula for the perfect rugby kick. It was, he said, ‘clearly tongue-in-cheek’.
‘It made the front cover of The Times,’ said Kanareck. ‘The media might complain, but they play the game, too. But it must be signposted as something humorous; if it is PR fluff dressed up as real science, it will fall on its face.’
Andrew Bloch (r), MD of Frank PR, was less sympathetic. He said: ‘Nowadays, online research can be cheap, quick and painless, so there is no excuse for dishonest methodology.’
PR veteran Mark Borkowski was keen to distance his agency from the story. ‘This doesn’t happen across the industry,’ he said. ‘It is the rotten fruit spoiling the harvest.’ He added that the client the ‘survey’ was created for, Veet, should also bear responsibility for signing off on the story.
Frank Swain, a spokesman for charity Sense About Science, held the media partly responsible. ‘Agencies have learned that the formula story is irresistible to media outlets, and that any jumble of letters and mathematical symbols can be attached to it to ensure coverage,’ he said.