Comment »Posted on Friday 16 October 2009 at 7:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

As anyone who reads Just A Theory should know by now, “formula for” stories are usually nothing more than thinly veiled PR that newspapers happily print for free, but they don’t get much worse than this:

Say hello to Phillippa Toon, proudly displaying her formula for the perfect night out. Phillippa is a biology student at Leeds University, and also holds the estimated position of “VKendologist”.

For those not up on their alco-pops, VK is an unpleasant mix of vodka, sugar and E numbers served in pubs and clubs across the country. The drink is owned by Global Brands, who it seems placed adverts on Facebook in the hopes of attracting Britain’s brightest minds to figure out the “formula for fun”. The advert read:

“Wanted! Talented maths or science student or graduate to spend the summer literally discovering the formula of fun. Must be over 18 years of age like bars, clubs and pubs and be prepared to have a fantastic time in the quest for knowledge, science and the pursuit of the perfect night out.”

According to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Phillippa was one of “hundreds of mathematicians and fellow scientists” vying for the chance to make up a such a formula.

For once, I can’t fault the maths too much. Yes, the measurements are completely subjective (check out the calculator on the VK website for full details of the variables in the formula), but at least there’s no division by zero leading to the likes of infinitly bad pancakes.

What really gets me about this is how shameless it is. Get a pretty girl, dress her up as a scientist, and gush about the “experiment” she conducted using “maths and science”. She’s not even the usual “expert scientist” they wheel in for these things, she’s still a student. Why do we let companies get away with this? Why do newspapers insist on printing these stories full of nothing but cargo cult science?

I know the answer, of course. Newspapers need to fill their pages with content, and a quirky science story that you can lift straight from a press release fits quite nicely. Never mind that it’s based on complete nonsense – since when do silly things like “evidence” or “facts” matter?

By now, my message has become a mantra I am doomed to repeat forever. Do not believe a word of these “formula for” stories; they are adverts, not science.

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