Tuesday 20 August 2013

When someone says "formula for the perfect", I reach for my red pen

Since this morning, I've upgraded my reaction to the RSC's formula for the perfect cheese on toast from "not impressed" to "deeply not impressed".

It starts off pretty well. They actually did some experimentation, which is a far cry from most "formula stories" cut from whole cloth at a PR firm's behest, many of them from the same few chronically underworked researchers. By carefully varying the amount and type of cheese, the thickness and type of bread, and the distance from the heat source, they determined the combination most appealing to a panel of experts. That's how science is done! Science is about thinking and experimentation, which are really, really accessible, so a cheese on toast experiment was a great idea. People could recreate this test at home. (And I encourage you to!) Great job RSC.

Then they present the results like this:

That's not okay!

By cloaking their results it in a mish-mash of confusing abbreviations, the formula just continues the message that science is an opaque and needlessly complicated field, making grand prognostications about topics in which it is hardly the be-all and end-all of judgement. You wouldn't actually write a reaction like that in a report, anyway - it would defeat the purpose. They take less space to simply tell us how to make the cheese on toast, and with more clarity, than the diagram occupies. So it's not just complicated, it's inauthentically complicated!

Outreach efforts like these should show that science is an activity for everyone, and do their best to explain that when scientists use jargon, it's only when needed for clarity or precision. Science can be, and should be, universal. Science is about trying things out, testing and iterating. We can all do that, even if we're just trying to figure out the best way to make our favourite snack.

Here's an equation I think we can all get behind:

Cheese + bread ---SCIENCE---> Deliciousness

For good articles on bad formulas, you could do worse than start with these:

"Transparent excuse for printing a nice pair of hooters" by Ben Goldacre
"X+Y/Z=BS" by Dan Rutter
"Formulaic fashioning of fun formulas" by Marc Abrahams
"Stupid formulae" by Andrew Taylor.

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