AntiSocial Science: ‘research has revealed’ that we shouldn’t trust a press release

Research has also revealed some fairly predictable stuff about the best laid plans of mice and men.  There was briefly the promise that I might get paid to blog, but it evaporated, so my blog gets the benefit.  This was my ‘try-out’ piece.  It even got vetted by lawyers!  It just never quite hit payroll…  So apologies for the fact that the links are now a little out of date, but here it is: my take on AntiSocial Science (think Bad Science for the social sciences).

Research has revealed women who wear skirts and jackets are viewed as more confident, higher-earning and more flexible than those opting for a trouser suit.”  Thank you to Professor Karen Pine, of the School of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire for this little gem.  I’d like to blame the Telegraph’s Science Correspondent Richard Gray for this er… oddly specific fashion recommendation, but I’m afraid he’s just the front man.  If you’re casting around for someone to glare at, Pine is your woman.

She, with the help of Mathieson and Brooke Tailors Ltd, put two sets of paired photographs on a webpage and invited people to judge them on confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary and flexibility.  The participants saw the images (of a man in bespoke and also in off-the-peg suiting and of a woman in a trouser and in a skirt suit, both with pixelated faces) for between three and five seconds.

Let’s think about that for a moment, before we move on to the results.  Firstly, yes, this research is sponsored by makers of bespoke suits.  Secondly, I’ll guess that the research participants who judged the suits were students at the Universityof Hertfordshire(but Pine doesn’t specify in her research summary).  The weight that we give to the conclusions drawn from this little investigation rests on the opinions of the research participants.  It’s therefore pretty important that we know who they are.  If they are in fact students, the weight I give to their judgement of suits is negligible: students are rarely called upon to wear suits, and even more rarely called upon to employ someone else wearing one.

The results show that the woman in the picture was rated more positively on confidence, flexibility and salary when wearing a skirt suit.  However, the statistic on salary (paired samples t-test with a sample size of 303) yielded a t-statistic of 1.92, which is outwith the commonly used 5% limit for statistical significance.  There is no mention of the results on success or confidence.  It is possible that there was no relationship between the value and the garment in these cases, or that the relationship favoured trousers.  Either way, I find the reporting a little unconvincing, to say the least.  It’s a bit like those advertising claims that “72% of Made-Up-Magazine readers agree this product makes their hair shinier”.

This doesn’t stop Gray (or Lynn Davidson in the Daily Mail) of course.  Still, I’m not prepared to let them carry the whole can for this piece of frippery.  Yes, they shouldn’t be reproducing what amounts to a press release from a tailoring company, but by employing an academic ‘beard’ Mathieson and Brooke have lent their enterprise an air of respectability.  It’s clever, but it’s hardly social science.

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