Every year at this time, the media report on the phenomenon of "Blue Monday," the day researchers have determined is purportedly the most depressing of the year. This year, the sad day fell on January 6th. Bob speaks with Dr. Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science blog, about how "Blue Monday" is just a pseudoscientific media myth started by a public relations company.
BOB GARFIELD: Was Monday an especially tough day for you? Were you feeling sad, a little blue? The reason for your onset of melancholy is that January 6th was “blue Monday,” reportedly the most depressing day of the year, based on science.
[FOX 29 “GOOD DAY” CLIP]:
MIKE JERRICK: Today is blue Monday.
SHEINELLE JONES: You already know this probably. It’s the most depressing day of the year... We calculated this. Here’s why: The holidays are over.
MIKE JERRICK: Yep,
SHEINELLE JONES: You have to go back to work, weather outside kind of gloomy –
MIKE JERRICK: Sure.
SHEINELLE JONES: - kind of gray.
BOB GARFIELD: The only problem with the reporting around this phenomenon, however, is that it is completely and utterly bogus, invented, phony blue-oney. Dr. Ben Goldacre is author of the book, Bad Science. Ben, welcome back to On the Media.
BEN GOLDACRE: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about “blue Monday,” how you first encountered it.
BEN GOLDACRE: Well, I first came across this almost a decade ago, when it was first concocted by a man called Cliff Arnall. And he was paid by a travel company, Sky Travel, to produce this bogus equation to come up with the most depressing day of the year, in the middle of January, specifically because that's when people are most likely to start thinking about booking their holidays. In fact, the very same chap produced a similar equation for Wall’s Ice Cream Company, which was the happiest day of the year, and the happiest day of the year was in June –
- which is the beginning of ice cream purchasing season.
BOB GARFIELD: The equation that he came up with for seasonal melancholy wasn't based on any kind of science that you could detect.
BEN GOLDACRE: No, I mean, it’s back-of-the-envelope silliness. These are really basically just a PR company’s attempt to get a brand into the media.
BOB GARFIELD: But they're so transparently unscientific that newspapers and other news organizations look at them and simply dismiss them out of hand, right?
BEN GOLDACRE: No, that doesn’t happen at all. In fact, they’re incredibly prevalent, especially in the United Kingdom. I think these PR companies have correctly deduced that, firstly, it's more impactful to get your brand's name into the media on the news or op-ed pages than by paying for an advertisement. And they’ve also hacked the media, in the sense that they have correctly identified science coverage as an area that is particularly poorly policed. The people who are really in charge in newsrooms, the sort of senior editors, they tend to have a good understanding of politics, economics, history, maybe sport, but they don’t feel science in their belly; they have no interest in it. And so, these rather silly stories are very easy for PR companies to get into the media.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me an example of some of the equations that purport to have some sort of mathematical substance to them?
BEN GOLDACRE: Some of the ones just from one newspaper, The Daily Mail, over the course of a year or two, they had the formula for the perfect day, the perfect Christmas, the perfect bacon butty, the perfect present wrap, the perfect sitcom, the formula for staying awake at work, which is C x D x A + CT + KF, the perfect cheese sandwich.
And it really is absolutely extraordinary how prevalent this stuff is. And I think it’s driven because people in newsrooms are shorter of resources every year, and so if somebody gives you a press release that has a quirky story, it's very tempting to just copy and paste it.
BOB GARFIELD: Come on, though, it's, it's not as though a journalist, no matter how scientifically illiterate, can look at a series of numbers and letters with an = sign in the middle of it and really believe that it is a formula for the perfect cheese sandwich. Are we really that naïve, or are we just actually cynical?
BEN GOLDACRE: I think you should maybe talk to some of the journalists who happily cover these stories. I would say any journalist who writes about the most depressing day of the year is really declaring that they don't care what they write, that they have no integrity as a journalist.
I had a, an extraordinary piece of luck in 2007, when one PR company, Clarion Communications, who were working for Veet, which is a cream for removing disgusting hair from ladies’ legs. I don't think hair on ladies’ legs is disgusting, by the way. But Clarion Communications got in touch with me and they said, we’re conducting a survey into the celebrity top 10 sexiest walks for our client, Veet, and we would like to back up our survey with an equation from an expert to work out which celebrity has the sexiest walk, with theory behind it. So we'd like help from a doctor of psychology or someone similar who can come up with equations to back up our findings, because we feel that having an expert comment and an equation will give the story more weight. So I wrote back and I said, well yeah, sure, of course, great. You know, are there any factors you’d particularly like to have in the equation, maybe something sexual And they wrote back saying, hey, Dr. Ben, we’d really like the factors of the equation to include the thigh-to-calf ratio, the shape of the leg, the look of the skin and the wiggle, the swing of the hips. There’s a fee of 500 pounds, which should pay for your services, and so on.
And there [LAUGHS] was even survey data which was – which was rigged. They actually said [LAUGHS] in their email, we haven’t conducted the survey yet, but we know what results we want to achieve. We want Beyoncé to come out on top, followed by other celebrities with curvy legs, such as J-Lo and Kylie, and celebrities such as Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse to be at the bottom, e.g., skinny and pale unshapely legs are not as sexy. And then they go out and they employed, it turns out, a Cambridge academic. So this is reported not just in the Daily Telegraph, it also got a little nugget in TIME Magazine. A team of Cambridge mathematicians had discovered that Jessica Alba has the sexiest walk.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that is just most depressing. And, on the subject of depressing, I want to get back to blue Monday. I think the reason it scans, in spite of all of your best attempts over the years to debunk it, is that it sounds so plausible.
BEN GOLDACRE: But, actually, you know, one study in Ontario found peaks of suicide in spring and autumn, suicides highest in summer, says a paper in Australia. Papers on general mood, where people just ask a questionnaire found that low mood was more common in the summer in Finland, and so on. These stories really are, in the most comprehensive possible sense of the word, bull__!
BOB GARFIELD: When you confront reporters and editors and scientists who have participated in these shenanigans, about what they've done, what's their rationalization?
BEN GOLDACRE: Well, with journalists you get people saying, hey, it’s all good fun, everybody knows not to take those pages of the newspaper seriously, in which case, frankly, I think we should put a big flag, telling readers that, at the top of the page. A lot of journalists have terrible tantrums, and then some of the academics, in particular, are, are pretty brazen.
Cliff Arnall, the man who came up with the equation for “blue Monday,” sent me a very, very [LAUGHS] charming email in 2006 when I first wrote about it. He says, “Dear Ben, further to your mentioning my name in conjunction with Wall’s Ice Cream, I've just received a further check from them. Cheers and season’s greetings, Cliff Arnall.”
BOB GARFIELD: He got a bonus.
BEN GOLDACRE: That was a happy Christmassy feeling for me too.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me, what is the formula for a happy Christmas?
BEN GOLDACRE: [LAUGHS] It’s media whore + corporate slut = money.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Ben, thank you very much.
BEN GOLDACRE: Thanks, Bob.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Physician, scientist and author Ben Goldacre writes at badscience.net. His most recent book is Bad Pharma.