The Bad Science blog has a category titled Cash for “Stories” and the Apathy Sketchpad blog has recently covered equations in The Telegraph and the Daily Mail. It occurs to me that, rather than demeaning science and making media whores of academics (usually mathemeticians or scientists as far as I can tell), the firms buying science for cheap publicity could actually get publicity and make themselves look good by sponsoring worthwhile research. Instead of commissioning a group of scientists to work out ‘how to make the perfect cup of tea’ or paying a mathemetician to come up with a bullshit equation for ‘the perfect…’, they could sponsor something that would add to the sum of human knowledge and possibly even help us with some aspect of, say, medical science.
I think that businesses buying joke equations may contribute to a public perception of scientists spending their days doing wacky research that has no relation to or bearing on everyday life as experienced by said public. I’ve actually heard people blame scientists for ‘pissing around with stupid experiments like why bread always falls butter side down’ instead of curing cancer. I don’t think it occurs to them that these scientists are only researching toast because Mr Bun the Baker has paid them to. If he paid them to research something more worthwhile then they would probably do so. The same goes for Mr Teabag and his ‘perfect cuppa’ or Mrs Travel Agent and her ‘most depressing day’ equation.
I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with business sponsoring science, I’d just prefer it if the research was worthwhile, rather than being pseudo-research that makes a mockery of science and turns the scientists and mathematicians responsible into corporate whores. The public understanding of science isn’t that great – we could really do with improving the situation and business buying cheap publicity through science certainly doesn’t help.
[*Mind you, neither does Lionel Milgrom with his PoMo nonsense (see shpalman for more), John Briffa with his own peculiar philosophy of science (APGaylard has a good post on this) or Patrick Holford with his misrepresentation of the science (see HolfordWatch or BadScience for more on PH). Claiming a meta analysis of RCTs was biased because it didn’t include two association studies that happened to have results and conclusions he liked? Oh dear. For more on Holford’s lack of understanding of RCTs, you can click here and listen to the excellent Tom Sanders on Radio 4’s Rise of The Lifestyle Nutritionists].