Sunday, 8 November 2009

VKendology: Vodka fuelled "research"

Guess what! Scientists have found the equation for the Perfect Night Out. Some really clever boffins have done loads of really hard work and figured out that: PNO = (A+Sp)* (N + V + T + TFT) * (E)

How great is that? Well, the Yorkshire Evening Post seem to think so, according to an article they wrote in October.

The background to all of this is that a Leeds University student recently won a competition advertised on facebook by VK, producers of a vodka based alco-pop. The aim of the competition was to find a science or maths student to spend a summer working for them researching what made a perfect night out. To make it sound all sciencey it had to lead to a mathematical equation, which they could then based PR activity on.

VK certainly aren't the first company to use such an approach. Increasingly companies are using “science” as part of their PR activity to get free advertising. Why pay for an advert when a journalist would be quite happy to print your corporate client's name in a news article for free? All you need is a hook and this can be provided by claiming that scientists have “found the equation for...”. Ben Goldacre has covered this issue on a few occasions, and a good overview of this can be found in this Guardian article.

Back to the VK equation though. VK, though a PR company called Brahm, made quite a big thing about how serious this research was going to be, as can be seen in the first press release relating to their search for a scientist. It was going to be scrutinised by the “Best Brains in Britain” and the equation had to be supported by an in-depth thesis. I therefore contacted Brahm and asked them to send me a copy of the thesis. To say it's poor would be a massive understatement.

Petra Boynton (a social psychologist) and Steve Anderson (a programmer with an interest in science and maths) have both reviewed the thesis and equation, from different perspectives, and their opinions can be seen at and In summary, the key problems with this work are:

1) The maths is terrible. I mean, really shockingly bad, which is worrying given it was put together by a science student and apparently reviewed by the “Best Brains in Britain”. As Steve point out in his blog there are circumstances in which you end up dividing by zero, meaning for example that it's possible to have an infinitely good night out by going out alone.

2) The social research done is very poor, with the student clearly not understanding basic concepts within social research. For example, she doesn't seem to know the difference between a semi-structured interview and a survey.

3) Nobody seems to consider or take responsibility for ethical issues, which given the research involves interviewing presumably drunk people in a night club is quite a big problem. There are issues around the safety of the researchers and whether respondents are in a position to actually give consent to being interviewed.

I decided to put a series of questions to the team at Brahm, including:

- On what basis was Ms Toon selected to undertake this research?
- Was this research and subsequent PR activity endorsed by the University of Leeds?
- How were the ethics of conducting this research considered?
- Who reviewed this research to ensure it's findings were accurate?

Brahm provided the following response:

“Vkendology by VK Vodka Kick is a fun study into what criteria we need to have the most fun nights out, and therefore we hope taken in the spirit in which it is intended. Phillippa Toon was one of over 50 respondents who applied to undertake the research and develop the formula following a cheeky VK Vodka Kick Facebook campaign to find a talented maths or science student who enjoyed nights out. She developed the formula, which we are assured is correct, in her own time following some very entertaining evenings out spent researching and interviewing partygoers. More than 2,000 responses were gathered in total and we’d like to thank her for her hard work and for being a great sport. The formula is her own work and is not connected at all with her studies at the University of Leeds. The guide to the formula is available at for you to view. Thank you for your interest in story and we hope it helps you to have lots more fun in the future.”

This essentially tells us nothing. Nothing about the ethics, which as Petra outlines on her blog are significant issues. Nothing about the review process, apart from them having been assured that the equation is correct.

I decided to follow up the issue of the reviewers, asking who they were and what their thoughts on the work was. I was told that

“We asked other individuals to check Phillippa’s report but they became involved on the understanding that they wouldn’t be named“

When probed further and asked simply for the backgrounds and credentials of the reviewers, rather than their names, I was told that the PR company was no longer able to help. I have a suspicion that the reviewers either didn't exist, or were certainly far from being the “Best Brains in Britain”. Any decent academic would have been able to flag up the massive problems with the report.

Now, some people may shrug all of this off, saying that's it's obvious from the start that this is just a PR exercise, maybe even “a bit of fun”. I disagree, as I see this as part of a wider problem of science being undermined and trivialised by such PR exercises. If a company wants to get free press by publishing “science” they should at least have the decency to do it properly and try to add something of some value to knowledge. If they don't want to do that then they should pay for their advertising space just like everyone else.

Perhaps one of the most depressing aspects of this is that people who really should know better are actively participating in this undermining of science.

Someone who should know better is Professor Anne Glover, Scotland’s chief scientific adviser, who has commented that:

“By and large most scientists would be pleased to see equations being used, and giving prominence to science. There will be some purists who look at it, realise it doesn’t work, and say it’s shocking and you shouldn’t be doing that. But it is interesting to raise the profile around science.”

There's a lot wrong with this statement. First of all, I doubt it's only “purists” who would say there's something wrong with a campaign such as VK's. What she also gets wrong is the idea that somehow this raises the profile of science, and that using equations somehow makes something more “sciencey”. Surely a chief scientific adviser should know that the key problem with the public understanding of science is that people simply don't know what science is, and by promoting bogus stories such as this they are reinforcing the idea that it's all just about equations.

Of course, the other key problem is that by attempting to promote science with nonsense like this you risk also promoting the public misconception that scientists spend all day researching pointless things and not actually doing much to benefit society.

Someone else who should know better is the student who conducted this research, who's potentially jeapordising the prospect of having a serious career in science. It would be interesting to know what her academic supervisors at Leeds University think of her research work, which she seems to take seriously. Whilst VK and Brahm seem to be now telling us it's all just a bit of fun, Phillippa Toon is standing by her research, seemingly thinking it's a robust piece of work. She has been quoted in the press as saying:

“It does stand up to scientific scrutiny. I wanted to prove that scientists weren’t all geeks. We can have a good time too.”

It's really worrying that a final year science student can really think this work stands up to scientific scrutiny. As we've seen from what Petra Boyton and Steve Anderson have to say, this work if full of holes. However, what really annoys me about this comment is her wanting to prove that scientists aren't all geeks, and that they can have a good time. Well, I'm sure there are many scientists out there who would resent the implication that you can only have fun by pretending to be a scientist and getting pissed on what to me tastes like sugary flavoured meths!

The sooner PR companies start leaving science alone, the sooner we can actually make some progress on meaningful promotion of science.