While the cat’s away

Ben Goldacre seems to be on holiday. (His most recent post on badscience.net was dated 18 July.) The temporary absence of the scourge of pseudo-science may have given the green light to new levels of absurdity.

The Times Science Editor, no less, wrote that

Women are getting more beautiful
FOR the female half of the population, it may bring a satisfied smile. Scientists have found that evolution is driving women to become ever more beautiful, while men remain as aesthetically unappealing as their caveman ancestors.
The researchers have found beautiful women have more children than their plainer counterparts and that a higher proportion of those children are female. Those daughters, once adult, also tend to be attractive and so repeat the pattern

Now, being in the female half of the population, I’m not showing a satisfied smile. In fact, he only physical expression that you could detect me making would be the Sign language sign for “bullshit”, which a QI repeat showed last week.

(Arms crossed on your chest, with the fingers of one hand making horns and the fingers of the other hand opening and closing as if to drop a load. How beautifully expressive is that?)

If I knew the Sign Language for “ideological and sexist bullshit”, I’d be putting that here instead. But I bet even Steven Fry doesn’t know that one.

“Beautiful” women have more children? Can anyone pretend for one second that there is an objective standard for beauty? Ideals of beauty vary enormously over time and between cultures. Indeed,you wouldn’t find agreement on a common standard between people living a few miles apart. (Certainly not in the city where I live.)

And “having more children”, nay even, having more female children? WTF. That might have been a sign of evolutionary success in the paleolithic, but would surely have depended much more on the capacity to raise children to adulthood than to breed them even then. In modern societies, having a smaller number of offspring is pretty well directly associated with higher levels of education, health and wealth, at the household level, and with economic development, at the social level.

To follow the “logic” of this argument, uglier women would be more reproductively successful in modern society, then, surely?

Quite apart from anything else – because I’m bored with pointing out blatant absurdities in this report – just look around. Opening your eyes on any public street will soon put paid to any idea that good-looking people reproduce more than homely people.

This is the nub of the science bit:

In a study released last week, Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, found beautiful women had up to 16% more children than their plainer counterparts. He used data gathered in America, in which 1,244 women and 997 men were followed through four decades of life. Their attractiveness was assessed from photographs taken during the study, which also collected data on the number of children they had.

Hmm, that sounds sciencey but, just having numbers in doesn’t make it science. (Pause to remember that “up to 16%” more children can include anything from fewer children right up to 16% more. )

I can’t find this study online, although there are plenty of newmedia refernces to it. The only works I can find with the name of Markus Jokela are apparently legit: a study of childhood risk in the the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and a study of IQ, Socioeconomic Status and Early Death: The US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in Psychosomatic Medicine.

I’m pretty tempted to let Dr Jokela off the hook here and suggest that the whole beautiful women reproduce more “study” is an obscure internet jokela. One can but hope.

In any case, Ben Goldacre, please stop sunning yourself, and sort this nonsense out.

14 thoughts on “While the cat’s away

  1. Since when did screwing up condoms have anything to do with beauty? Come on honey, you don’t have to be pretty to pop holes in the damn things!

    It does worry me that (religious) lower-IQ people have far more children. That can’t be good for us as a species, you know?

  2. K.
    I looked at the Wikipedia page. Thanks for the link.

    . I think the “averageness” concept could at best be described as an indicator of genetic health. I am a bit more convinced by a link between symmetry and genetic health.

    But the basic design flaws in the whole idea remain:

    Attractiveness has very little to do with how many offspring one breeds. (Just like intelligence, as Angie points out) There are very few men or women who are so physically unattractive that they can’t find someone to breed with.

    I feel this is a deep misunderstanding of evolution for a start, mistaken on so many levels that I’d have to write pages of boring guff about why.

    How is that – while women are allegedly becoming ever more beautiful and fertile – fertility is dropping to the point at which huge numbers of women can only conceive through assisted reproduction techniques? We are very far away from “natural” that this is absurd.

    Also, there is no reason to believe that scientists now are talking teh absurdities of Galton seriously, nor that having some scientific training allows anyone to escape from the general cultural values about beauty.

  3. Alun – not only did both links magically make it past, they were a combination of informative and interesting. Maybe the spam filter has a quality control setting…

    It was very interesting to read the Simon Singh bit.

  4. I took the trouble last week of contacting Markus Jokela and request a copy of the article that was mentioned in the Sunday Times article. I was not surprised to see that Jokela’s research is legit, as you suspected. He found that in a population of white Americans born around 1940 the women who on their Highschool graduation photos looked attractive (to people from their own generation) had on average more children than those who fell in the less attractive half. The difference was small but statistically significant. For the men there was no significant difference in the number of (known) children they had between those rated as attractive or as unattractive.

    Jokela points out in his conclusions the weaknesses in this research (being based on a very narrow test population) and he also mentions the false conclusions that Kanazawa based on research of the same test population. It was those unwarranted conclusions that the so-called science editor of the Sunday Times smeared over the front page. Jokela was much disturbed by the fact that papers world-wide copied that flawed Sunday Times article without a critical look at the content.

    Ben Goldacre is completely right when he accuses the media of spreading bad science to an unwitting public. Once upon I time I was raised to believe that the media had this calling to uplift the masses to the light of rationality, but I was sadly disappointed.

  5. PS Paaskynen

    Wow. Thank you. What an amazing response. I am in awe of your thoroughness.

    I am also very glad to hear that Jokela is a legitimate researcher, as seemed to be the case from what I could find of his publications.

    How disgraceful that this sort of nonsense was constructed out of his work.

  6. I’m going to put on my Comrade Conrad disguise here for a minute…

    Look, for as long as we insist on profit-based economy, and as long as we require media to operate as profitable business, we are going to have media that seeks profit instead of media that seeks objective rationality.

    Maybe the capitalism-safe answer is for media to all go non-profit?

  7. Isn’t it a shame that the news media cant make a profit by reporting the news though? The made up crap to fill space in news papers cant be profitable – they have to actually pay for some retard to re-write the science into gibberish…

  8. I think the dude was a bit unfair to me, there.

    I bloody said I hadn’t read it because I couldn’t find it online (his work wasn’t easily googleable on the day the story came out) so I was writing about the press. The Bad Science was so obviously the science reporting.

    Which has basically got nothing to do with his work.

  9. Yowza Heather. To quote my favorite aunt: “I don’t know the NAME of the stick up his butt, but I don’t like it.” (You can see, I’m sure, why she is my favorite.)

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