The Daily Mail has a story about “research” showing that “women with lighter hair have more confidence.” Oh really?
The “study” was carried out by Mark Sergeant of Nottingham Trent University, who asked 200 women how they felt both before and after dyeing their hair. It turns out that participants “across the board” felt “elevated” confidence and mood levels, as well as more sexually attractive, with newly-made blondes reporting the highest increases.
What’s wrong with this research? Huge assumptions, for one thing. How can we be sure it was a new hair colour that contributed to a change in these women’s attitudes, and not simply a change? If you feel bad about the way you look changing any part of your appearance, whether it be by dyeing your hair, plastic surgery, or even buying new clothes, is probably going to make you feel better.
Then there’s that oh so important question: where’s the money? The “research” was funded by Clairol… a company which sells hair dye. The words “conflict”, “of” and “interest” spring immediatly to mind. Now, it could be that this “research” is entirely sound. It could be that blondes really do have more fun. Really though, if you saw a story saying that research funded by Big Cigarette Co had found cigarettes actually improve your health, are you going to believe them?
It’s certainly bad science, but is it bad reporting? To be fair to the Mail, I found this story not in their Science section, but in ‘Femail’. Since the second paragraph of the story is “Scientists claim their research shows that bleaching hair does wonders for a woman’s self-image”, however, I felt that it was fair game – especially as it was written by Fiona MacRae, the Mail’s science writer.
The cynic in me might say that the Mail only chose to go with the story because they would be able to accompany it with a bunch of pretty pictures of eye-catching blonde women. Maybe I should try that:
Now of course if this was a proper scientific study of whether pictures of Scarlett Johansson get me more hits, I’d probably put the picture higher up for more impact. I would also publish another identical post, but without the picture, as a control. If I didn’t, it would be a pretty bad study as there would be no way of measuring an improvement, and I’d expect someone to pick me up on it.
The same logic should apply to science reporting. If you see a study that doesn’t have a decent control, or makes a lot of assumptions, why not ask the scientists involved to clarify their findings? If research is funded by an organisation with a vested interest in the results, why not point out to your readers that it might be worth taking with a pinch of salt?
Just because “scientists say” or “research has shown” something is the case, it doesn’t mean that it is true. After all, Otto Rössler – the guy who went to court to try and stop the LHC – is “a scientist”. He’s also pretty damn loony. Bad science does not have to mean bad reporting – just ask Ben Goldacre.