You’ve seen them. It’s those “news” stories where a “scientist” says they have calculated the best/worst movie/holiday/starbucks coffee/fruit/travel destination. And these articles always, always, always have two features:
1) the best/worst is always the product of the sponsor/sponsor’s competitor, and
2) there is always some bogus math formula which makes it look all official and science-y.
At Apathy Sketchpad you can find formulas to compute the best sitcom, the perfect joke, or how to pour gravy.
Besides being absurd, news articles treating these as serious science only serve to cloud the everyday person’s idea of what real science is all about. This leaves people believing in all sorts of pseudoscience, and gives them the idea that taxpayers money on research is being wasted on drivel like this.
People get really worked up about this abuse of math and science. Simon Singh is sponsoring a contest to find the worst example of this kind of formula (makes you wonder if he’ll come up with a formula to calculate the worst one ). And Ben Goldacre has taken the time to point out that if you look at units, then some of these formulas are automatically pure nonsense! And as Nikola Petrov told us a couple of weeks ago, you should pay attention to your units!
(Thanks to Dr. Goodey for pointing out Simon Singh’s article)