On the Math/Maths Podcast, we frequently cover ‘bad maths’ stories. A recent example was the bobbing apples story we spoke about in episode 71: Halloween Fruit Special. This proposed a “mind-bogglingly complicated equation”, provided by a supermarket, for finding the perfect bobbing apple:

D = 3 x (2 + T^2) x M / (10 x T), where D is diameter, T is typical texture of an apple, and M is average mouth size.

Along with another formula from a rival supermarket (I reproduce this as reported; I imagine the second equals is supposed to be a plus):

B = (BU + S) x (C = BI), where B is bobability, BU is buoyancy, S is size, C is colour and BI is biteability.

A headline like “Mathematician finds formula for the perfect bobbing apple” is a tell-tale sign of bad maths in the news. Or is it? Actually there are several types of story that all appear under this same style of headline.

A couple of years ago Simon Singh launched a mini-campaign against ‘phoney formulae’ being reported in the news. Simon describes being asked by a PR company for an equation to say that the perfect shopping day coincided with the launch of a shopping exhibition, saying to the PR company,

I would engineer the equation so that the graph peaked on the day you require. There would be no real science behind the equation, but it would look sensible and convincing.

and getting the response,

Your ideas and formulas are perfect and exactly what we are looking for and it would be great to confirm you working with us.

As well as calling them “absurd PR equations”, Simon also gave a more serious warning, saying this,

demeans mathematics and science by giving the impression that academics waste their time on frivolous topics and are willing to come up with the appropriate answer if someone is prepared to pay them enough money.

A 2004 BBC article, “Formula for the perfect formula“, claims the origin of this media fascination with formulae was a piece of work by Len Fisher on how to dunk biscuits, sponsored by a biscuit company. What is described in that article is, I think, something subtly different from what Simon is railing against.

Len seems to be taking corporate sponsorship to do real experiments (the original article describes a “two-month investigation”), just that they are experiments with fairly trivial goals. The article describes a scientist who is aware that newspapers just want “to make a story look scientific” but motivated by a desire to communicate science to the public through any means available. In the case of the biscuit dunking, Len is quoted describing the physical processes and saying: “As with most things in physics, we can write equations which govern this”.

I doubt the biscuit manufacturer cared in advance how long a biscuit should be dunked for (though they are presumably interested in getting their brand in the news) and Len claims to be doing real science to answer the question. I have also heard people describe being approached by PR companies with ready-made meaningless formulae to which the approachee is asked to put their name, on behalf of some brand. This seems similar to but slightly different from Simon’s case, where he is apparently asked to manufacture a realistic-looking piece of pseudo-mathematics to back up a pre-determined conclusion, or Len’s, where a brand name is associated with some trivial piece of research.

Simon also speaks about the danger of confusing real research with these PR equations. In Math/Maths 52: World’s Smallest Klein Bottle we covered side-by-side the formula for the perfect cup of tea and that for the perfect golf putt. The former appears to be just PR for a milk company but the latter, although you could imagine a headline like “Mathematicians discover the formula for the perfect putt” being dumb PR for a golf equipment company, appears to be based on genuine research. Using mathematics to improve the performance of sports people and manufacturing of sports equipment is big business. The author, a physics professor at Yale, filed a patent in 2005 through the university for a golf training aid, marketed through a spin-off company. This was described by the Dean of the Engineering Faculty at Yale as “a great example of the joy in practical application of basic science and engineering“. Over in the UK, I expect this would be an example of ‘knowledge-transfer’ and much sought-after evidence of the positive impact university research has on wider society.

There is another interesting case, when a real piece of research is explained using a metaphor which then gets reported as its real purpose. This may be what happened in a 2010 story in the Guardian, which is about a paper on Recursive Binary Sequences of Differences published in Complex Systems that we spoke about on Math/Maths 7. Attempting to explain potential applications to blending problems, the researcher seems to have given the trivial example of pouring coffee. The work is reported under the headline “How to pour the perfect cup of coffee” with explanation: “Years of research have resulted in the definitive way to pour the best second cup of coffee”. I don’t know what happened here but it looks to me like some number theory with potential applications to chemistry is being presented in a way that might lead you to believe it is one of Simon’s “absurd PR equations”.

So what have we learned? Rail against bad maths in the media when you see it, but be careful to check you’ve found what you think you’ve found and be aware there are levels of severity.