Am still catching up from my travels. Readers will be able to judge the level of my jet lag.
The headline from the Daily Mail reads, “Science proves beer goggles really do exist”.
What is most interesting about this report is found in the opening words:
Scientists have finally proven what many of us have believed for years â€“ beer goggles really do exist.
The phenomenon, where less attractive people suddenly become more appealing when the onlooker has consumed copious amounts of alcohol, is well known in pubs and clubs across Britain.
I know of nobody who disputes the finding that the drunker you become the better she looks. Just the opposite: everybody already knew the conclusion of this study before it was conducted. So why conduct it?
Well, there’s no need to read too deeply into this. Academics are always hard up for papers (just as bloggers are for post material), and since the number of academics is on the rise, we should expect a growing number of—let’s be honest—useless papers.
But the first words of that opening sentence—ubiquitous words in stories of this type—are interesting in what they reveal about our level of respect for science. The author is saying, in effect: “We already knew this phenomenon to be true, but now our belief has been blessed by ‘science.’ Now it is really true.”
Again, let’s not get carried away. Reporters, just as are academics and bloggers, always on the lookout for stories, particularly eye-catching ones. And openings like the one used here are the path of least resistance.
What makes this report intriguing is that stories like this are so common. Stories like what? Those with the theme, “You already knew it, but now it’s proven.”
The attitude behind these reports gives “science” too much respect. Here’s what I mean.
We have learned, by (if you will) scientific demonstration, that our intuitions and how we interpret our experiences can sometimes mislead us. This is true—which we in any case already knew before experiments re-proved it to ourselves.
But because we sometimes mislead ourselves does not imply that we always do. Because controlled experiments can usually provide more reliable information than that given to us by our (unplanned) experiences it does not follow that data from experiments are always better.
In short we are not fools who need to be told what to think about commonalities. While a trained specialist is just the thing to have if you need an opinion on quantum gravity, we are too willing to rely on “experts” for day-to-day matters.
Once more, I hasten to agree that this particular study might be valuable, and that experts in any area can sometimes be helpful. Once more, though, because they sometimes are it does not follow that they always are.
And how about the usefulness of this study? Psychologists asked drunk pub goers to “judge 20 pairs of photos of men and women aged 18 to 25.”
One face in each pair was digitally enhanced to make it more symmetrical â€“ and therefore more attractive. Thirty-six more sober students (who had drunk less than four units of alcohol) had a 67 per cent success rate in choosing the symmetrical face. But 28 intoxicated students (who had drunk ten or more units) chose the more symmetrical face in just 58 per cent of cases.
Dr Lewis Halsey, who led the joint study with Stirling University in Scotland, said: ‘Drunk students were less good at noticing symmetrical faces and cared less about the defects.’
I do not have access to Halsey’s paper (nor do I have time to look for it), and there is the very real danger that the reporter summarizing it has done so incorrectly. But misidentifying which of a pair of photographs is more symmetrical is not the same as saying that the less symmetric is more attractive.
Those who experiment on humans always operate on the belief that their subjects are cooperative, and that they have understood the rules of the game that they will play. I do not believe that this is true, or rather, I believe it is true with a frequency far less than is hoped.
A sober person might play along with picking out the more symmetric face (and who said these are always the more beautiful?), but when drunk, as Cole Porter tells us, anything goes. After one “unit” too many, you’re just as happy to point to anything to remove the pictures from under your nose so you can return to your drink.