How to spot a REALLY BAD Science Story

The Infamous Cliff Arnall

The Infamous Cliff Arnall

Two days ago on the 19th June 2009 the Telegraph published an article with the heading “Happiest day of the year is June 19th, according to formula”.

Psychologist Dr. Cliff Arnall is credited as the creator of “the complicated mathematical formula” that underlay this discovery and the article also included some of his sage advice on the best ways to be happy this summer.

Here is the formula in full:

O + (N x S) + Cpm/T + He.

Put simply, he gave values to each symbol and added being outdoors (O) to nature (N) multiplied by social interaction (S), added memories of childhood summers (Cpm) divided by the temperature (T), and added excitement about holidays (He).

And here are some of Dr. Cliff’s comments on finding happiness:

People may be less able to afford other leisure activities but it’s free to walk in the park or paddle in a stream.

The most important thing in our lives are our relationships – and no amount of money can buy that.

Now, there are several issues that could be taken with all of this, namely:

1. The equation is made-up nonsense.

Aside from the entirely arbitrary nature of the equation one has to wonder how Dr. Cliff arrived at a numerical values for  ‘nature’, ‘memories of childhood summers’, ‘social interaction’ and ‘excitement about holidays’. Was nature 71 or 647 or what about 42? And is excitement about holidays 0.8 in September and 3.2 in June or is it the other way around? We will never know as there is no paper linked to this formula and as such it is just a free floating arbitrary formula with meaningless, made up values decided on by Dr. Cliff.

2. Dr. Cliff provides the most banal common sense advice on how to be happy.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that people tend to be happier when they are outdoors and the weather is nice or spending time with friends. Nor should it be shocking to anyone that having good relationships with those close to you is important to being happy. The fact that Dr. Cliff presents such common sense knowledge as if it is the fruits of modern research is indicative of his general silliness.

3. Dr. Cliff is not a doctor.

Although his title suggests otherwise there is no indication that I can find that Dr. Cliff is a doctor in either the medical or academic sense of the word (so it’s Cliff from here on). Cliff is not shy about listing his qualifications and his ‘Feel Consultancy’ website refers to him as Cliff Arnall BSc MSc MBSCAH or to put it more succintly he has an undergraduate degree, a masters and is a ‘Member of the British Society of  Clinical and Academic Hypnosis’. It’s always a good idea to be wary of people who cite long lists of abbreviations after their names as it turns out his academic credentials are no more impressive than those of any masters graduate… says Chris Kavanagh BA MA PSBJJS.

On top of this, a little bit of googling makes it clear that rather than being a ‘Cardiff university lecturer’ Cliff was actually a part time tutor who held a weekly relaxation class in a university building. Perhaps unsuprisingly Cliff also lists being on Oprah’s internet TV show, working part time in a sex shop and the fact that he is covered by a professional indemnity insurance scheme as apparently note worthy achievements in his online ‘biography‘.

4. Cliff has a track record of releasing equations for payments from the PR divisions of various corporations.

If the above seems a little mean spirited consider the following:

Every single year Cliff Arnall poses as an academic authority and, with a little help from various corporate sponsors, issues a ‘scientific’ press release about a formula cooked up by a PR department to promote their products. This disreputable practice was documented in some detail by Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame who revealed over two years ago that the very formulas Cliff released were sent to other academics who were offered money by various corporations to lend their name and credentials to the exact same press releases. Such PR stunts masquerading as science damage the public’s opinion of real science, or as Ben succintly put it:

There is no scientific merit to these equation stories. None. They don’t attract people to science; in fact, they sell the idea that science is pointless, indulgent, irrelevant boffinry. News editors love them.

It seems they still love them and Cliff Arnall has still not developed any scruples about pimping out his credentials (real or imagined) to corporations. This is not totally unexpected however given that the response that Ben received many years previously when he wrote about Cliff’s willingness to promote a formula for the happiest day of the year for Walls ice cream (deja vu anyone?) :

Further to your mentioning my name in conjunction with ‘Walls’ I just received a cheque from them. Cheers and season’s greetings, Cliff Arnall.

Very classy.

Anyway, the one positive that can be taken away from these kind of nonsense science articles is that their regular appearence provides ample opportunities to illustrate some quick ways that you can tell something is a REALLY BAD science story. So here’s my checklist:

  1. The story includes a “complex mathematical forumla” to work out something mundane or frivolous like the best way to drink a pint, the happiest day of the year or which celebrity has the best backside.
  2. The story includes 1) and mentions a corporate sponsor. Corporate sponsors aren’t always a sign that a science story is rubbish but when combined with a fanciful equation this seems to be the case about 99.9% of the time.
  3. The story appears in the ‘And finally’ or ‘In other news’ section rather than the ‘science’ section of a news source. Appearing in the science section is no guarantee the story is kosher either but when a science story is in the ‘fluff piece’ category it’s never a good sign.
  4. And most importantly the story features one ‘Dr.’ Cliff Arnall.

For some more examples of the annual horror that are the stories unleashed by Cliff have a look here:

And to end on a high note here are sensible bloggers and journalists who have already drawn attention to Cliff’s nonsense:

14 comments

  1. I was thinking about these silly equations/studies the others. Remember the one confirming that duck’s like water?! I’d really like to know what the point of them is because all they seem to do is foster a negative image of science, making it look silly and pointless.

    Like

  2. This post and the further Ducks like water reply are a good example of the politics behind research. That is, scientific research needs funding before it becomes science and more often than not the findings will be in line with the philosophy of the funder.

    Like

  3. Thanks for clarifying this story. I just heard a reporter on TV mention it today and I thought “this can’t be right!” But I’m glad you did the research for me. I’ll be noting this in my own blog for reference.

    Like

  4. Appreciating the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you present. Its great to come across a blog every once in a while that isnt the same old rehashed material. Excellent read! Ive bookmarked your site and Im including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

    Like

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    Thank you ,Troy

    Like

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    Thank u -Clifton

    Like

  7. “How to spot a REALLY BAD Science Story |
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    but wait to read through more of ur postings. Time to spend several time on-line lmao.
    Thank you -Octavia

    Like

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    Like

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