Why journalists are suckers for stupid algebra

Why do journalists love stupid equations? That’s the question popular science writer Simon Singh posed on Sunday to a packed lecture theatre at the British Science Festival.

The author of the best-selling maths novel Fermat’s Last Theorem discussed the tenuously contrived equations dreamt up by PR companies and worked through by paid mathematicians to work out such illusive mysteries as the secret of the perfect sitcom, how to pour gravy or a nifty formula on how to work out if your boobline is too low. As Singh said, “The equation’s primary goal is promotion, not science.”

Here is the link to a Guardian article Singh wrote recently which essentially sums up what he covered in his talk. But underlying equations such as the happiest day of the year (June 20, if you want to know), there was a serious message. Although on the surface they can be seen as just a bit of fun, albeit pointless and wrong, maths, ultimately these equations undermine how scientists and mathematicians are seen by the public.

“Bad equations increase the perception that mathematicians and scientists are bonkers,” said Singh. He added that they also perpetuate the idea that money is being wasted on pointless maths at the expense of more worthwhile projects.

On being asked by an audience member whether he wasn’t patronising the public by assuming they would be taken in by these equations, Singh replied: “People tend to believe what the journalists tell them about science. It’s our job to try and keep the journalists honest. Most are honest but those who stretch the truth make it harder for the rest of us and means we have to go even further and exaggerate to make the story stand out. So no, I don’t think that this is patronising the public.”

On another, even more serious note, came the issue of libel in science journalism. Singh spoke of the chilling effect that libel is having on science journalism by stifling scrutiny of research.

Singh, who is currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association, knows first hand what being on the other end of a law suit is like.

“It’s bad for science if we don’t have a frank, fair debate on practises and research,” he said. “When journalists hold back and gut their articles for fear of libel, or when articles don’t even get published at all, this has a serious effect on science.”

He added: “Our UK libel laws are seen by other countries as so ridiculous that they have brought in legislation to block them to make up for our shortcomings.”

He urged people to sign the petition run by Sense About Science campaigning for a change in libel laws. Here’s the link to give your signature, which I also encourage you to do. Otherwise, it’s not just science journalism that suffers, but science itself.

Audio recorded by myself at the talk.
© Melanie Hall 2017