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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Spooky Case of the Disappearing Crap Science Article

Just a few hours ago, I drafted a post about a crap science study in the Daily Telegraph called "Stress of modern life cuts attention spans to five minutes".
The pressures of modern life are affecting our ability to focus on the task in hand, with work stress cited as the major distraction, it said.
Declining attention spans are causing household accidents such as pans being left to boil over on the hob, baths allowed to overflow, and freezer doors left open, the survey suggests.
A quarter of people polled said they regularly forget the names of close friends or relatives, and seven per cent even admitted to momentarily forgetting their own birthdays.
The study by Lloyds TSB insurance showed that the average attention span had fallen to just 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes 10 years ago.
But the over-50s are able to concentrate for longer periods than young people, suggesting that busy lifestyles and intrusive modern technology rather than old age are to blame for our mental decline.
"More than ever, research is highlighting a trend in reduced attention and concentration spans, and as our experiment suggests, the younger generation appear to be the worst afflicted," said sociologist David Moxon, who led the survey of 1,000 people.
Almost identical stories appeared in the Daily Mail (no surprise) and, for some reason, an awful lot of Indian news sites. So I hacked out a few curmudgeonly lines - but before I posted them, the story had vanished! (Update: It's back! See end of post). Spooky. But first, the curmudgeonry:
  • Crap science story in "crap" shocker
The term "attention span" is meaningless - attention to what? Are we so stressed out that after five minutes down the pub, we tend to forget our pints and wander home in a daze? You could talk about attention span for a particular activity, so long as you defined your criteria for losing attention - for example, you could measure the average time a student sits in a lecture before he starts doodling on his notes. Then if you wanted you could find out if stress affects that time. I wouldn't recommend it, because it would be very boring, but it would be a scientific study.

This news, however is not based on a study of this kind. It's based on a survey of 1,000 people i.e. they asked people how long their attention span was and whether they felt they were prone to accidents. No doubt the questions were chosen in such a way that they got the answers they wanted. Who are "they"? - Lloyds TSB insurance, or rather, their PR department, who decided that they would pay Mr David Moxon MSc. to get them the results they wanted. He obliged, because that's what he does. Then the PR people wrote up Moxon's "results" as a press release and sent it out to all the newspapers, where stressed-out, over-worked journalists (there's a grain of truth to every story!) leapt at the chance to fill some precious column inches with no thinking required. Lloyds get their name in the newspapers, their PR company gets cash, and Moxon gets cash and his name in the papers so he gets more clients in the future. Sorted!

How do I know this? Well, mainly because I've read Ben Goldacre's Bad Science and Nick Davie's Flat Earth News, two excellent books which explain in great detail how modern journalism works and how this kind of PR junk routinely ends up on the pages of your newspapers in the guise of science or "surveys". However, even if I hadn't, I could have worked it out by just consulting Google regarding Mr Moxon. Here is his website. Here's what Moxon says about his services:
David can provide a wide range of traditional behavioural research methods on a diverse range of social, psychological and health topics. David works in partnership with clients delivering precisely the brief they require whilst maintaining academic integrity.
The more commonly provided services include:
  • The development and compilation of questionnaire or survey questions

  • Statistical analysis of data (including SPSS® if required)

  • The development of personality typologies

  • The production of media friendly tests and quizzes (always with scoring systems)

  • The production of primary research reports identifying ‘top line findings’ as well as providing detailed results and conclusions.

In other words, he gets the results you want. And he urges potential customers to
Contact the consultancy which gives you fast, highly-creative and psychologically-endorsed stories that grab the headlines.
  • The Disappearance
The mystery is that the story, so carefully crafted by the PR department, has gone. Both the Telegraph and the Mail have pulled it, although it was there last time I checked, a couple of hours ago. Googling the story confirms that it used to be there, but now it's gone. Variants are still available elsewhere, sadly.

So, what happened? Did both the Mail and the Telegraph suddenly experience an severe attack of journalistic integrity and decide that this story was so bad, they weren't even going to host it on their websites? It seems doubtful, especially in the case of the Mail, but it's possible.

I prefer a different explanation: my intention to rubbish the story travelled forwards in time, and caused the story to be taken down, even though I hadn't posted about it yet. Lynn McTaggart has proven that this can happen, you know.

Update 27th November 13:30: And it's back! The story has reappeared on the Telegraph website. The Lay Scientist tells me that the story was originally put up too prematurely and then pulled because it was embargoed until today. I don't quite see why it matters when a non-story like this is published - it could just as well have been 10 years ago - but there you go. And in a ridiculous coda to this sorry tale, the Telegraph have today run a second crap science article centered around the concept of "5 minutes" - according to the makers of cold and flu remedy Lemsip, 52% of women feel sorry for their boyfriends when they're ill for just five minutes or less. Presumably because this is their attention span. How I wish I were making this up.

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