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Jan. 18 2010 - 4:27 pm | 5,651 views | 1 recommendation | 29 comments

Science Reporting Gone Wild

Jennifer Gareis attending the second issue rel...

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OR, are blonde women really “born to be warrior princesses”?

When scientific research is written up in the press — particularly sexy scientific research — always keep your eyes on where on earth its coming from. Now, Neuroworld has undoubtedly discussed less-than-rock-solid studies. As in, we’ve discussed them, taking care to note their origins and their deficiencies. What we try to avoid doing, obviously, is reporting a shaky study as from-the-mouth-of-God fact. No study, truth be told, can give us facts. Science can only give us observations and testable theories that tie together what we observe.

All of which is a very long preamble to pointing you toward this remarkable article in The Sunday Times: “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses.”

I was all set to write up a post for you, the lovely and attractive readers of this blog, when I realized… I could not find this study. Not just “I couldn’t find a free version to link.” I couldn’t figure out what the article was talking about. So, I fired off an email to the supposed study’s author. And I received this in reply, from a ticked off Aaron Sell: “I’m afraid you, and thousands of others for that matter, have been badly misinformed.  I have never done any research that shows blondes are more aggressive, entitled, angry or ‘warlike’ than brunette or redheads.”

That’s right: The study doesn’t exist.

What does exist is a study, “Formidability and the logic of human anger [PDF]” finding that men who are stronger and women who view themselves as more attractive are more prone to anger and feel entitled to better treatment. The study contains nothing about blondes versus those of other hair colors.

The author of the Times article, apparently, asked Sell to break down the study by hair color — something that was not done for the published version. According to Sell, he was able to do this, using pictures of the participants to code for hair color.

What he found:

based on our data:

Blonde women do _not_ feel more entitled.
Blonde women are _not_ more prone to anger
Blonde women do _not_ feel more attractive than other women.
Blonde women are _not_ more militaristic.

These findings are, to put it mildly, not what was reported. And they are not what made it into other versions of the story [UPDATE: The BBC story linked here has "corrected" — without any acknowledgment of the earlier, incorrect version — to make the article just about "attractive" women as opposed to blondes] that have been picked up.

I certainly can’t speak to how such an utter disconnect grew during the course of the Times article between what the scientist was saying and what ended up being reported.

All I can say is be skeptical — especially, for whatever reason, when it comes to the British press — and always look for the source of the information you’re being sold. If it’s not immediately obvious where something appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, break out the jumbo salt grains.

As for the story itself, it’s a shame that a study that was interesting enough on its own (HOT WOMEN FEEL ENTITLED AND GET ANGRY MORE QUICKLY!!!) had to be sensationalized to a ridiculous degree in yet another shoddy science story that leaves the public to wonder what they can and can’t trust from the press.

If I were a blonde woman, I can’t even imagine how angry I’d be.


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  1. collapse expand

    I am astounded, which is saying a lot because I’m forever blogging about how bad British science reporting is…

    British science journalists generally just read a press release about a paper and report on it, or if they’ve got lots of time on their hands they might read the paper. For them to actually approach the academics and inquire about the research, albeit stupidly, is pretty novel…

  2. collapse expand

    Life is too short to get mad every time someone writes something stupid about blondes.

    As for slapdash British reporting, it’s not just science. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story…

  3. collapse expand

    This is a recent trend among industrialized nations, one in which news is molded to the journalists intention. However it’s been a staple of third world countries.

    • collapse expand

      Despite the term “third-world” not having any real meaning anymore , that is a rather sweeping generalization. In keeping with the spirit of the blogpost, would you kind provide the relevant research based on which you depreciate journalists everywhere?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      So the researcher co-operated with the reporter, and got screwed, huh? Was he drunk on the attention, was he after a job, maybe tenure? We all whore ourselves to the media, and if we are not vain enough to do it by ourselves our employers make us play this game. This academic lost – rule one, only do TV or radio, they only give you 30 seconds but its in your control – and now whines. Suck it up, Doc, your moment of martyrdom is over. Now get back to work.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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