Far-fetched formulae make science a 'joke'

September 10, 2009

The trend for newspapers to print serious-looking mathematical formulae for everything from the perfect joke to the perfect football penalty, or even whether Britney Spears' "boobline is too low", has been criticised at the British Science Festival.

Author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh, president of the mathematical sciences section of the British Science Association (BSA), and producer of the award-winning documentary Fermat's Last Theorem, told Times Higher Education: "There are some fascinating examples of formulae that can help us understand everyday life, but many of the formulae generated as part of public relations pushes lack solid foundations and make science and mathematics a joke."

In his presidential lecture, delivered on 6 September at the University of Surrey as part of the festival organised by the BSA, Dr Singh examined "why journalists love stupid equations ... and other problems in the media".

He was once asked by a PR company, he said, to "invent an equation to show which is the best day to start your Christmas shopping" - which had to coincide with the opening of an exhibition.

He replied that he had managed to "cook up a formula" in ten minutes as he wandered into town. This, it turned out, was exactly what was required. Provided it looked "sensible and convincing" and drew attention to the exhibition, it did not matter at all that there was "no real science behind the equation".

"PR companies want equations that look credible and have a credible name attached," Dr Singh said. And that often means turning to academics.

"We don't know how many are approached and turn them down," he said. "But it is a problem that some academics are drawn in, whether unwittingly or more knowingly."

Dr Singh said that the practice creates confusion between real research and pseudo-research and increases perceptions that scientists and mathematicians are "bonkers", "waste money on pointless research" or "will deliver results according to who pays".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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