EDIT: I maybe went off half-cocked with this. See the following post./EDIT
I’m worried about Culture Dish. In her welcome message newest member of the SciBorg, Rebecca Skloot, links to an article she wrote entitled Tushology, which is about a Manchester Met professor’s mathematical equation for the perfect human arse.
Pity poor mathematics. Perhaps every five years or so an actual mathematical story will make the mainstream press, if an old and easily described conjecture is solved by a sufficiently eccentric mathematician at a time of year when little that is newsworthy is happening. For the most part though what the public gets told is mathematics is this sort of thing: The Formula For X. Look at these examples by the Torygraph or these from the Mail.
To the unscrupulous journalist The Formula For X is great; it writes itself, straight from the press release, just like The Gene for Y and Z Causes (or Prevents) Cancer. In actually fact it is (in some ways) rather a lot worse than those persistence forms of bad science reporting. While gene and cancer stories may turn weak, early evidence of limited influence into simple causation, there is usually some science under it. The “maths” stories are typically formulae paid for out of corporate PR budgets which reduce complex phenomena to a five term polynomial based on no real evidence at all.
And so to the article in question:
David A. Holmes did not wake up one morning and say to himself, Today I’m going to come up with an equation to measure the perfect human posterior. He didn’t think to quantify backsides until a horseracing public-relations person called to ask if he could scientifically calculate what the perfect behind for a jockey would be
Wow. You have at least to admire the shamelessness of that. It a PR lead story all right.
The equation that describes the quality of the female rear end, according to Holmes, is (S + C) x (B + F)/T – V, where S = Overall Shape (“including tendency to droop”), C = Circularity, B = Bounce Factor (not to be confused with “wobble”), F = Firmness (with perfect being “like a comfy bed”), T = Skin Texture and V = Vertical Ratio (the goal: “on the top-heavy side of symmetrical”). For the male rear end, the equation replaces bounce, circularity and vertical ratio with M (Muscularity), L (Leanness) and O (Overall Symmetry).
Hmm overall shape? Bounce factor? What would the units of those be?
The numbers you plug in to the equation come from a list of descriptions. To calculate B for Bounce: “After one flick it wobbles for 30 secs” gives you a 2, whereas “during aerobics it doesn’t even quiver” gives you a 5.
Ahhh I see… arbitrary division into discrete categories. Really these things are going to be no easier to judge than “How attractive is this bottom on a scale of 1- 10?”. Still, maybe the model correlates well to attractiveness:
“There is a massive — and I mean massive — disagreement among the public between the larger, motherly, 1950s womanly bum and the impossible small, pert, athletic, rounded one,” Holmes says. He calls it “the J. Lo bum verses the Kylie bum,” after Jennifer Lopez and the singer Kylie Minogue (who scores close to the ideal). Holmes’s personal bottom line: “The J. Lo bum is more feminine and more representative of Woman; the Kylie bum is actually very close to the perfect male bum — it’s far more androgynous than people would like to admit.”
O! So basically tastes differ and the formula doesn’t really reflect reality at all ; whodathunk it?
I like ScienceBlogs.com. Typically, I find that going to the front page and clicking on anything produces something more interesting and informative that the vast majority of newspaper articles (unless the blogger is Matt Nisbett, obviously). Certainly I expect to be able to avoid the worst kinds of churnalism. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t employ anyone with a record of talking up other kinds of pseudoscience quantum healing, say or global warming denialism. I’m a little disappointed that they consider that associating mathematics in peoples minds with arbitrary formulas pulled out of a morally-challenged professors backside (pardon the pun) to get a few column inches. It’s not even like she hacked it out pay the rent and is embarrased about; she links to it right there in her first post.