How does it feel?

Sketch Zen by Flickr user Tim Collins. Click for sourceOur Bullshit Blue Monday competition is so popular, even the PR company that promote the day have entered!

In a comment to our original post, one of the founders of Green PR has entered a formula into the competition, and includes a long-winded rant suggesting that our criticisms of the nonsense formula are “snide”, a “‚ÄòLord of the Flies‚Äô-like, vendetta”, and are “too hidebound by logic”.

I’ve added my response below the fold so everyone can enjoy the comedy gold.

By the way, this is your last chance to get your entries in for our competition to invent a formula that describes what total bullshit these formulas are. Either leave it as a comment on any of the Bullshit Blue Monday posts or email me via this web form.

The best entry gets a prize!

My name is Andy Green. I am a partner with GREEN communications and it was me who created the name ‘Blue Monday’ to link it with the existing story about the ‘most depressing day of the year’ inspired by the formula devised by Cliff Arnall.

Hi Andy, my comments will appear like this.

My colleague has already been in touch with you to set the record straight on some serious inaccuracies in your blog.

We’ll get to those right away.

I am now adding my contribution.

It is a pity your respect for hard scientific facts has not been carried through in your post about ‘Blue Monday’. The dictionary defines ‘bullshit’ as containing misleading, or false language and statements. A simple phone call or e mail to Beat Blue Monday campaign, the source of your story, would have enabled you to avoid a number of significant false statements.

We respect anyone advancing the cause of scientific understanding but you seem more intent on pursuing a personal, school playground, or ‘Lord of the Flies’-like, vendetta on the psychologist Cliff Arnall.

Fact: You originally claim the Mental Health Foundation has shelled out ‘hard cash’ to be linked with the ‘Blue Monday’ campaign. This was totally not true. GREEN communications, the public relations company behind the current Blue Monday campaign, approached the charity to be a beneficiary, completely free of charge. After my colleague contacted you, I now see this detail has, at least, been amended.

Fact denied! I wrote “the Mental Health Foundation have seemingly shelled out hard cash”. I link to the dictionary definition of seem for your edification.

As a result of the Blue Monday campaign, an outstanding charity which has to compete with thousands of other worthy causes, would receive welcome name and brand exposure, as well as specific publicity about its own mental health guide. If fully capitalised-upon, the campaign could also be a significant long-term fund-raiser vehicle for the charity, again where all funds generated would go to the charity.

Fact: Blue Monday is not ‘owned’ by anyone. In the same way ‘Valentines Day’ or ‘Pancake Day’ are owned by anyone. The idea for ‘the most depressing day of the year story’ was not even originally conceived by GREEN communications. Rather the company recognised an opportunity to do some good in the world by harnessing its professional skills in public relations. Beat Blue Monday is a completely non-commercial enterprise. We do it because we think it is a good thing to do.

Fact denied! See the scare quotes in my original quote (“PR agency Green Communications who ‘own’ Blue Monday”). Although, using them in your refutation claim makes no sense. I link to a page on the use and meaning of scare quotes for your edification.

Fact: There has been a paradigm shift in the ‘most depressing day of the year story’. The story was originally put out by a London based public relations agency for their travel client in 2005. When it discovered the story was not going to be used in subsequent years, GREEN communications picked up the opportunity (after clearing it with the agency concerned and Cliff Arnall) and since 2006 has run the ‘Beat Blue Monday’ campaign. Note, the story as it stands now is not about the day being ‘scientifically proven’ but rather the formula representing the ‘symbolic day’ of being ‘the most depressing day of they year.’ The criticism levelled against the Blue Monday campaign relates to the earlier incarnation of the campaign.

Fact denied! The original criticism of the campaign was that it used a bullshit formula that made no sense and that incorrectly and illogically indicated that a certain day is the worst of the year. Your campaign does exactly the same. Hence, the criticism is equally as relevant.

Fact: Read up on memes. You will discover these are self-replicating vehicles of communication. What GREEN communications recognized was the ‘most depressing day of the year’ story was a meme, already in the infosphere. Through its involvement GREEN has harnessed this meme, branded it with the name ‘Blue Monday’ and directed this body of information towards achieving a social and cultural good (as determined by our liberal, humanist values, for any post-modernists out there.)

Fact deni… Hey, wait a minute. “Read up on memes” isn’t a fact, it’s a command. And if you’re a post-modernist, what are you doing talking about all these facts?

Fact: I too share concerns about the need to expand understanding and engagement with science. We have generations who leave the education system with the barest scientific knowledge. As a result, real important issues such as climate change, or the seeming lack of any real debate about a new generation of nuclear power stations, are inadequately addressed.

Unlike the understanding of logically incoherent rubbish like the Blue Monday formula which gets international media coverage.

The real problem here is not the likes of Cliff Arnall somehow taking up valuable media space which the scientific community would otherwise receive.

Science gets the reputation it deserves with limited media exposure, partially through the difficulty in understanding of some of its subject matter to non-scientific audiences. More fundamental, and fix-able, is that the scientific community has not invested in telling its story as thorough and effective as possible, sometimes being too hidebound by logic, and failing to recognize the potency of emotion in communications, and the reality of memes.

Jesus wept.

The Blue Monday campaign does not seek to claim to be addressing real issues for the scientific community in the world. If you are sincere scientists, as opposed to the snide variety, why not focus on real issues and spend your valuable time addressing these?

That’ll be my day job then.

Opinion: Having met Mr. Arnall, where he gives up his time for Blue Monday at no cost, and in his professional career has helped hundreds of people with depression and addictive behaviour problems, I am of the opinion that he is a thoroughly decent human being.

Actually me too. Really, I’ve never met the guy and have never criticised him personally – just his nonsense formulae. Although his tendency to threaten to sue people for criticising his formula is a little off colour I feel. You may want to talk to him about this.

He is however, guilty: of agreeing with us that his information for ‘the most depressing day of the year story’ can be directed to achieving a social good.

You can do just as much social good without misleading people. I say again, I applaud your efforts to promote mental health. Misinforming people in the process is counter-productive. Just run a campaign that isn’t based on tosh. Job done. Everyone’s a winner.

Nothing could be further from the truth of the image of Cliff somehow raking in lots of corporate gold from this venture. Over the four years of ‘the most depressing day of the year’ story he has probably earned less than £1,700 – and has not been paid a penny by GREEN communications.

Cliff is understandably concerned, now that his children are using the Internet, they don’t come across unfounded and malicious references to their father, such as one post suggesting he should be ‘shot through the face with a crossbow’. Any right minded person would act to protect their reputation in such instances.

The post, not written here, did not suggest that this should happen. It just described something nasty that he could write a formula about. However, a tasteless example, I agree. Interestingly, I believe Cliff didn’t threaten to sue over this, it was over another post by another author that was entirely reasonable in its assertions.

You have invited contributions of new formulas. You might want to consider this one:

G+O+O²+D = Beat Blue Monday
S+N+I+D+E

where
G = Desire to create good to make the world a better place
O = Available meme and publicity skills
O² = Public and media receptiveness
D = Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world

S = Highly intelligent individuals
N = Too much time on their hands
I = Inadequate fact-checking
D = Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world
E = Propensity to pick on easy targets

In the spirit of your invitation to be creative, maybe the English language could be enriched by a new term, distinct from ‘bullshit’ called ‘snideshit’: a term to describe negative opinions, containing misleading or false statements, used, like children in a playground, to pick on an easy-to-hit victim. I am too gracious to suggest the term should be applied to anyone involved in this debate.

I leave the comedy as an exercise for the reader.

So, where do we go from here?

Pub?

I have a strong suspicion the interests of balance and fair reporting might be subsumed in your subsequent journalist coverage about Blue Monday. You have the easy option to write a one-sided editorial in your column, which gives you a platform to score easy points.

I think you’re confusing me with Dr Ben Goldacre, who also thinks this is tosh.

However, rather than have an on-line slanging match, where it easy to posture and hide behind the facelessness of the Internet, I would really welcome an open, off-line meeting. (I am sure I could get Cliff Arnall to take part as well)

As the Martini ad used to say ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ – where we would have a genuine open discussion on any questions you care to raise about what ‘Blue Monday’ is, and represents. It could even be extended it to a wider debate of how can science meet the challenge of getting the reputation it deserves.

Taking part in such an open meeting gives you the chance to prove yourself not as a group of ‘snide scientists’, but willing to take part in a real, open discussion to explore how can ‘good science’ be communicated.

How can an open discussion happen in a private meeting? That’s the point. You’re promoting nonsense publicly, so we’re criticising you publicly. Rather odd that a PR company isn’t comfortable with public debate but there you go.

That approach may be old school, but will avoid the depressing prospect not of Blue Monday itself on January 19th, but of a worthwhile initiative being undermined by your talent, which if focussed on more worthwhile ends, could achieve some better good for the world at large, while also helping the cause of scientific understanding.

There’s a really simple solution that doesn’t need a meeting. Drop the formula and the ‘worst day of the year’ drivel, and just promote the Mental Health Foundation and overcoming depression without misleading people. That’s all we’re asking.

You do some good and the campaign doesn’t hinder my work treating patients, who genuinely get misled by this sort of thing, doing scientific research into mental illness, which the nonsense formula apes in the media, and educating people about science, which your current campaign undermines.

8 Comments

  1. Posted January 14, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Hello, it’s me. I wrote that Cliff could write an equation to figure out the best day to get shot through the face with a crossbow, and then prove it. I didn’t say he should get shot through the face with a crossbow, I was making a comment about the nonsense of the industry he was courting. “Formula shows Best Day To Get Shot Through the Face with a Crossbow next Saturday!” Something like that.
    The whole crossbow-bolt/face interface scenario was taken (and misquoted I realise now) from The Day Today; a satire on News reporting which seemed apt given how this nonsense is deemed newsworthy:
    MORRIS: …and new anti-shoplifting measures for a B&Q store in Bracknall.
    SECURITY GUARD: If I catch anybody stealing items from the shop, then I shoot ‘em through the mouth with this. [Holds up crossbow]
    (Retrieved from http://www.alan-partridge.co.uk/scripts/thedaytoday/daytod5.htm )
    To be honest, more kids Google for porn and bomb-making instructions than to see how their parents’ reputations are perceived by the wider community.

  2. Posted January 14, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Also, “G+O+O¬≤+D = Beat Blue Monday” doesn’t work because otherwise “Available meme and publicity skills” is equal to the square root of “Public and media receptiveness”, which clearly isn’t true. Also S+N+I+D+E equals what, exactly?
    Just saying, that’s all. Leave formulae alone until you grok maths.

  3. RoaldFalcon
    Posted January 14, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    As much as I hate the junk science, your responses have made the Blue Monday people a little sympathetic in my eyes.
    The last time I checked, adding the word “seemingly” doesn’t make a false statement true. The word “not” does that.
    And putting scare quotes around “own” usually means that somebody used the word and you disagree with this use.
    I am just really surprised at these answers.

  4. Posted January 14, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    The guy used the word “infosphere”, I cannot believe you dignified it with a response.
    Though the offer to meet up in a pub was nicely evolved.
    Flamewars are back in vogue, it seems.

  5. Posted January 14, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Hi Vaughan,
    If the PR firm would like a public debate, perhaps we can talk to them about the Ethics of psychologists engaging with the public as a non-scientific audience.
    I think that Psychologists who put their name to such pseudoscience in a public forum have just fallen into the simple trap of giving simplistic yet clever sounding explanations for psychological topics that are actually very complex. Many TV psychologists fall into this same trap.
    Often, when asked by a non-psychologist about a particular mental health issue, it is tempting to give a simple yet clever sounding answer, which makes the person feel happy and makes me feel clever, but as a psychologist this is an ethical issue which I feel is important to deal with correctly. We would not get away with publishing such statements in an academic or peer reviewed medium, but the same is not true of casual conversation, or sadly, the media.
    It may be theoretically possible to explain an aspect of human behaviour using a formula, but as we know, the number of biological, psychological and social factors that are important in an illness such as depression is very high. So high as to be practically impossible, even if we had enough studies confirming the influence of each factor to produce a formula, simple or otherwise. We would then need studies to proove the accuracy and precision of such a formula, which would require a very very large sample of people. Even then, individual differences between people mean that any “formula” cannot be accurate for all persons.
    The truth of the matter with regard to depression and time of year is that people may well be more depressed in January than in say, August. In the main part this may be due to conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) which especially effects people in countries with more Northern latitudes (Norway, Sweden, Canada and the UK).
    There may also be an effect of “post christmas blues” and worrying about debts, but I do not know of any psychological studies about these (doesn’t mean they don’t exist, just that I am admitting the gaps in my knowledge here, something “media psychologists” rarely if ever do).
    In my research working with peope with acquired brain injury and their relatives, I am often guilty of giving out simplistic explanations, as these are badly needed by people who would have difficulty understanding the complexities of neuropsychology. However, though they are simplistic, they do tend to be an accurate description of a problem and its causes, which is the best I can do.
    We must not fall into the trap of giving pseudoscientific explanations which mislead the public because:
    a) It is false information and bad science
    b) The general public are not that stupid, anyone with any knowledge of maths and human nature knows the reality is more complicated than that
    c) It may give a false impression of psychology as a pseudoscience instead of a young but developing science proper.
    This could be very harmful as it may lead some members of the public to not seek treatment which they require.
    The PR man is right about the memes bit though. What he needs to realise is that we as psychologists are trying to replace his inaccurate memes with our accurate ones, but that meme survival depends on many other factors, such as the amount of media coverage they are given.
    Thats my 2pence worth, hope its helpful. I think Vaughan would make a good TV psychologist given the chance!
    Tom Michael

  6. Posted January 14, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments Tom. As to your last point, I suspect I have a “good face for radio” as the saying goes.

  7. Posted January 15, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Marcus Du Satoy will have to fulfill the mandate to end trivial use of mathematics in the public sphere such as the use of formulas for eccentric things (i´ve hear even about a formula for the perfect penalty in football)

  8. Posted January 19, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    It’s the essence of bullshit. Andy Green seems to have no concept of whether or not something is true, and why that might be important.


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