01 September 2007

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Ben Goldacre, writing in Bad Science, tells us the story of how he was contacted by a PR firm which wanted him to concoct some equations that would "prove" that certain celebrities had sexier walks than certain other celebrities, as part of a promotion for Veet hair removal cream. I am not making this up. It's an extended version of his column in the Guardian.

The press release seems to have beeen reproduced by about a zillion British newspapers, usually in a shortened version; the longest version I could find is here, and I'll be quoting from it.
JESSICA Alba, the film actress, has the ultimate sexy strut, according to a team of UK mathematicians. Beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder - it can now be worked out using a simple mathematical formula.

Bullshit! And this isn't just me being bitter that I might not fit some social standard of beauty. It's me being bitter that mathematics is being "used" in this way. In Goldacre's column, we learn that there was no team. Richard Weber at Cambridge is the mathematician who's mentioned there, but only after Goldacre was contacted -- and Goldacre as far as I can tell is a medical doctor. (By "there" I mean Goldacre's blog post; I can't find a version of the press release that mentions Weber.)
The academics found that it is the ratio between hips and waist that puts the sway into a woman's walk - and the nearer that ratio is to 0.7, the better.

No they didn't! This seems like the stuff you see out there every so often about the Golden Ratio making things more beautiful -- and in fact that ratio's been used to sell pants! -- where there's some "magic number". There's at least some justification for the 0.7 number, though, in that Real Scientists have done studies, although the preferred ratio varies by culture. And it never seems to be given to more than one decimal place, which suggests that a few inches don't matter. Apparently Weber made a more nuanced comment that got cut down to this.
This ratio provides the body with the right torso strength to produce a more angular swing and bounce to the hips during the walking motion.

Furthermore, the waist-to-hip ratio might actually be important for physical attractiveness, but nobody said that had anything to do with the walk. I don't know much about biomechanics, though. But it looks like the causality just isn't there.

Oh, and they screwed the survey up so badly that it doesn't even mention anything that hair removal cream could actually do. You'd expect a study by a hair removal cream company to say that having smooth, shiny, hairless [insert body part here] was an important part of beauty.

Fortunately, they're just using this to sell hair removal cream. Recent studies have also shown that studies which are funded by pharmaceutical companies are far more likely to say that drugs do something goodthan studies which are not funded by pharmaceutical companies; that sort of hijacking of the scientific apparatus is a lot more insidious, as people could actually die.

I'm not saying that beauty can't be encapsulated in some sort of formula. But it'll be a lot more complicated than this one. (In fact, it might not be a "formula" at all, in the sense that you put in numbers which describe the person and get out a numerical rating of their beauty; much more feasible would be a recommendation system like that on Netflix or Amazon. As I understand it, those systems work by recommending books or movies to you that people who have bought the same books or rented the same movies as you also liked.)

And I'm skeptical of any formula that says that the same people will seem beautiful to everyone, because that's simply not true. I think someone could come up for a formula that will tell them who I am likely to find beautiful -- there are definitely patterns. But my tastes are not the same as yours. And don't try to tell me they should be.

P. S. I moved into my apartment a year ago today. As I sit here, I look out my kitchen window and see a truck from the movers I used. This is probably not a coincidence, though, as September 1 is kind of a big moving day in my neighborhood.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am just about to start a degree in mathematics at Cambridge University, and I was driving down there last Saturday. On the radio I heard: "a team of mathematicians at Cambridge University...." So I turned the volume up. "...Have discovered a formula for how beautiful a woman is."

I am not usually an angry person, but that made my blood boil. No wonder people think maths is useless.

Isabel said...

anonymous,

I actually came to this article via this thread at fark.com, which has a link to the Bad Science post under the headline "Remember that team of Cambridge mathematicians which proved Jessica Alba had the perfect wiggle? Well, it was a PR stunt, there was no team, and Jessica Alba doesn't really have the perfect wiggle"

Now, usually "Cambridge" refers to your university, but it grabs my attention because sometimes it refers to Harvard or MIT, both of which are located in Cambridge, Massachusetts; I was an undergrad at MIT. (The Cambridge in Massachusetts is named after the one in England, by the way; Harvard was sufficiently important to the town that the people there chose to rename it after the English university town in recognition of that fact.)

So it's the word "Cambridge" that got me paying attention to this story in the first place.

John Armstrong said...

And this isn't just me being bitter that I might not fit some social standard of beauty.

But you blog about math! What's hotter than that? Nothing!

;)

Blake Stacey said...

I've always found that beauty was a multimodal function of many parameters. And occasionally I've met people who simply bowled me over, changing my internal beauty function so drastically that it was not merely sharply peaked, not merely a delta function, but absolutely undefined over all other persons.

Valentine said...

Ah, like the anonymous commenter I also heard this on the radio, during a comercial radio gossip show actually.
First the woman presented the story, with a mild sarcastic voice, and then she sounded angry, while explaining that they should be doing something useful, as if these alleged mathematicians had "calculated a way to suppress women further". She also went on to make the point that these studies cost LOADS of money, and wondering how the british tax payers could put up with such useless waste of their money, and something about how these mathematicians could sleep at night for earning money through this!
After that I left the store where the radio was on speakers, but I imagine they pulled in some "political commenters" and took some listener calls about it.

I've written angry letters in my life and know they don't really do any good. But oh would it feel nice to yell at this said radio speaker.

Anonymous said...

Finally, the truth will come out now:

This 'math' is 100% bullsh*t. Knowing a little something about biomechanics (Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering--Mayo Graduate School), I will tell you what REALLY determines the "bounce and sway" of the human walk.

It has NOTHING to do with the waist-to-hip ratio. It has EVERYTHING to do with the width of the hips. The pelvic bones essentially form a bowl that the femurs attach to; the wider the bowl, the greater the sway needed to transfer weight to the leg.

Nothing is more despicable than someone who lies for a living. Journalists should be held to a higher standard so that disinformation is not broadcast like that.