Formula for failure

If N is the number of column inches, R is the relevance to current news obsessions, I is the importance of the academic whose name is attached to the press release and is a greek character that I introduced to make the whole thing look like it came from a university rather than the desk of a public relations consultant, then the formula for press coverage of a made-up scientific formula is too depressing to invent.

I’ve just been at the British Science Festival where journalist, author and enemy of chiropractors everywhere Simon Singh presented Why Journalists Love Stupid Equations and Other Problems in the Media. If you have been under a rock and so missed the stupid equation trend, over at Apathy Sketchpad there’s a collection of the Telegraph’s miserable Formula For stories. Also, the same blog’s collection of PR-concocted science from the Mail, and then there’s the Sun story on the formula which tells us if a boob line is too low – which, as Ben Goldacre points out, doesn’t even work. Idiots. You can read more detail about what Singh had to say here.

I declare an interest: a few years ago I was called in by a PR company to work out why the newspapers had stopped printing stories for their price comparison web site client. The answer: because all they did was make up increasingly asinine formulae for the tabloids, freesheets and women’s magazines. At the time they were desperately pushing the formula for a perfect bargain (I’m not making this up), which had half a dozen variables to consider, and eventually gave a number between 100 and 700 which you had to compare to a table of results. You were meant to use this calculation while staring into a shop window FFS, and they couldn’t even be bothered to (or didn’t know how to) make it come out as a percentage.

I suggested to Singh that naming the PR companies who rely on this guff might act as a deterrent. “Problem is, if you name them, then people who want to get in the papers are going to say, fantastic, we should go to that PR company,” he pointed out.

Like an internet survey of 23 people, or a the story of how some type of vegetable will save your from cancer, the fake formula offends me because it is cynical lowest-common-denominator PR. It offends me because as journalists we all know this is crap – but we publish it anyway. And it offends me because we assume this is all the science that readers can tolerate without their heads exploding while they’re reading the paper.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Cut out your waffle: buy my book

Type your email and click the button and you will automatically get every new post.

“This excellent collection” (Director Magazine). Click to order:

I tweet