These stories do nothing to promote science. They sell products and pay money, misrepresent the notion of doing research, and sell the idea that scientists are irrelevant boffins.

Could it be that Ben Goldacre really is that naive?

I rejoiced on the day ex-Dr. Gillian McKeith became plain old Gillian McKeith aka ‘The Awful Poo Lady’. This was in no small measure due to Goldacre’s relentless hounding through his Bad Science column in the Guardian, exposing her every fatuous claim to authenticity – the ‘energy’ in seeds, the ‘oxygen’ in chlorophyll – until she was forced to drop the PhD.

But whereas Goldacre had a sharp nose for the poo lady’s tang, he doesn’t seem quite to appreciate the bouquet of PR surveys. Surveys are a trusted weapon in the PR arsenal. People love them and if the subject matter is titillating, all the better. Pick up any newspaper and chances are there will be several surveys in them, the vast majority of which will have originated from a PR agency.

I’m currently writing up a report on a survey that truly does have ‘pub conversation’ potential. For a copywriter it’s a godsend: for once, no dry-as-a-bone press releases, no anally retentive articles. It’s fun to write, the public laps it up and the PR company gets exposure for the client. Who loses out? The boffins, apparently. Well, they didn’t have to play if they didn’t want to. Perhaps the allure of pretty PR girls did it for them. Perhaps they wanted to get invited to those sorts of parties.

Some surveys really do contribute to knowledge. But let’s face it, some do not. They’re tongue-in-cheek, or have a wiggle in their walk and a giggle in their talk. And if Goldacre really is affronted by this then perhaps he should leave the soft targets and get on with what he does best: exposing really pernicious offenders.

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4 thoughts on “These stories do nothing to promote science. They sell products and pay money, misrepresent the notion of doing research, and sell the idea that scientists are irrelevant boffins.

  1. How about the sentence “Jessica Alba has the perfect wiggle, study says”, implying that there was a scientific *study* when none was involved? If they had used “survey” as you do, I don’t think Ben would have got involved.

    If I thought mathematicians were actually doing this, I’d be annoyed at the waste of money and time. And I probably would think they were irrelevant boffins. You can’t blame scientists for feeling insulted, when someone’s insulting them! And especially when they didn’t do the deed – look at the Ig Nobels if you want some actual pointless research.

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