(X+Y)/Z = BS

Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science piece returns to one of his, and my, pet peeves.

It's the "scientists have discovered the formula for" story. You know the sort - they've discovered the formula for the perfect sexy walk, or the ideal biscuit-dunk, or whatever.

These stories are invariably provided by PR companies and self-promoters, and used as gap-filler by understaffed newspapers and TV stations the world over. And they are invariably bullshit of the very highest order. The "formulae" seldom even make internal sense, and when they do make internal sense you can count on them being quite unconnected to anything in the real world.

And, and this is the part that really matters, these stupid stories help to create a public perception of "scientists" as white-coated "boffins" with no real comprehension of the world, who have nothing important to do all day, and nothing comprehensible to say.

You know you're looking at a really broken formula when you see one side of the equation all being multiplied or divided by one variable. The formula for "the perfect joke", for instance, has one side divided by the number of puns. This means all jokes that do not include any puns at all are either infinitely funny, or funny to an undefined extent, depending on which way you look at it.

Many of the "formulae" don't even get that far, though. They're just a misshapen assemblage of algebraic characters, such as you'd expect a seven-year-old to draw if they were pretending to be a mathematician.

This latest example, an alleged formula for determining the "naughtiness rating" of a woman's garment, is entirely representative. It makes no sense in the first place - as long as your nipples are covered, it's apparently impossible to be naughty at all - and the example of it used in the article is broken, with an obvious but un-noticed multiplication by zero making the book-promoting "Cambridge mathematician" responsible look, appropriately, an utter tit.

So far, so usual.

But then Ben points us to Apathy Sketchpad, where one Andrew Taylor has dedicated himself to the detection and analysis of every Stupid Formula Story that's ever made it to the news.

Sometimes, I regret to say, Mr Taylor finds himself driven to profanity.

(See also.)

11 Responses to “(X+Y)/Z = BS”

  1. BMK Media Says:

    I've never seen an actual 'formula' story here in the SE US, but when I saw that Onion Science Machine I laughed out loud- Our newspaper LOVES those crazy non-sciencey cutaway drawing things - and there's always a random human outline, too!

  2. TimDurnan Says:

    How amazingly appropriate for my subscribed Quote-of-the-Day:

    Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.
    - Michael Crichton

    Sometimes how the stars align is kinda scary.


  3. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Crichton's comment, while absolutely representative of the late writer's unfortunate attitude towards empirical evidence, does not say what you think it says about this situation.

    The BS "formulae" are certainly not representative of the scientific consensus about anything at all. The scientific consensus, in fact, is that they are bullshit. So Crichton's argument, in this case, tells you that in saying that a meaningless "formula for the perfect holiday" is nonsense, Big Science is trying to rob you of, I don't know, perfect holidays, I guess.

    I contend that this is not very likely.

  4. rndmnmbr Says:

    Yeah, if your newspaper designer has a couple spare column inches to fill after everything else is in place, he'll grab the first thing that looks vaguely interesting and well-spelled and stick it in place. For we designers care about one thing: having a complete paper with no excess whitespace to the printers on deadline. Whether it makes sense, or is good advice, is irrelevant.

  5. Steven Den Beste Says:

    C. Northcote Parkinson included a formula like that in each of the essays of his classic book "Parkinson's Law" -- but he was joking.

    There's also "A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown", but that wasn't serious either.


  6. Daniel Rutter Says:

    if your newspaper designer has a couple spare column inches to fill

    Back in the day, we used to duplicate small ads to fill gaps. I think at least a couple of issues did actually go go press with a small empty spot here or there. We never managed to add a "PLEASE REST YOUR COFFEE CUP HERE" caption.

  7. rndmnmbr Says:

    Oh how I envy you, Dan. The downside to working at a small newspaper is that we usually don't have any small ads to dupe into a blank space.

    In my defense, it has to make sense to me before I plug a hole with it, and I understand that press releases are more often than not advertising in prose format (and thus they get rewritten if used at all). I try not to add to the collective ignorance of the world to make a deadline.

  8. phrantic Says:

    Why not just make up an ad to put in the blank spaces? That would be really fun!

  9. Daniel Rutter Says:

    That's actually where at least some of the "funny classified ads" you see on the Web come from. Papers keep an archive of amusing fictional small ads and run them to fill gaps, when they've already used the CALL 123-1234 TO PLACE YOUR AD!! one twice on that page.

  10. rndmnmbr Says:

    Interesting concept, but I'd get more than a few calls from people thinking the fake ads were real.

    I tell you, sometimes it depresses me how gullible people are here in this town.

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