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Science And Beer Goggles

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 – 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 – 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.

14 thoughts on “Science And Beer Goggles Leave a comment

  1. Plus, no mention of confidence intervals, so I have no idea how confident to be about this result! Experts, indeed.

  2. Some of us have a name for places like Stirling University. We call them remedial schools. They teach stuff to 18-21 year-olds that used to be taught to 15-17 year-olds. They leave remedial school well educated for manual work, with a $30,000 debt and – oh yes – with something often referred to as a degree.

  3. After a few beers my Googles always look symmetric to me but now I know it was the beer (or my Googles) and not me. Thank God for science.

    I presume the “unit’ was smaller than a pint. After 10 pints not only would “symmetric” be a foreign concept but toilets would become increasingly desirable.

  4. They didn’t prove that girls become more attractive, they demonstrated that drunks don’t care.

  5. Actually, Doug, they didn’t even prove that. Crap science is crap science. The design, methods, data collection, and data analysis were faulty. The study was yet another case of a prejudged commonality, outcome-assured-beforehand science, wherein the researchers FAILED to rigorously apply the scientific method.

    Why should they? They knew the results ahead of time. So they didn’t even try.

    The tragedy here is that students were taught by a moron how to do crappy science.

    Rather than deifying science as the ultimate arbiter of the truth, crap science makes the practitioners look like stooges and morons, goggle-eyed drunks on a party binge. “Look at me, I’m doing science,” said the reeling drunk old lecher professor.

    “Ha ha,” says the Media. “We told you scientists were strangely stupid.”

    This kind of story is the opposite of giving science respect. I have to disagree with Dr. Briggs on that point.

  6. “symmetric face (and who said these are always the more beautiful?)”

    There are various cognitive studies on symmetry.

    To use the example of a dented beer can.

    We see a symmetrical beer can, then we see the dent. It’s more work to store in memory a non-symmetric image.

    Hence, being that we are all inherently lazy(efficient), we tend to prefer things that are symmetric.

  7. Doug is right.

    I was in the Navy and I assure you, the longer you sit at the bar and the more you drink, the better the women look. At last call they are all good looking. There is an old joke that goes, I never went to bed with an ugly woman but I woke up with a few.

  8. Ray, that reminds me of a song by Kenny Chesney covered by Willie Nelson with the joke:

    Last night I came in at two with a ten
    But at ten I woke up with a two

  9. Actually, Doug, they didn’t even prove that. Crap science is crap science. The design, methods, data collection, and data analysis were faulty. The study was yet another case of a prejudged commonality, outcome-assured-beforehand science, wherein the researchers FAILED to rigorously apply the scientific method.

    No kidding. When I first started the article, I already had in mind how this experiment would work.

    Shuffle a stack of men/women pics (for whatever the subject finds attractive). Have them rate each picture on the 1-10 scale, take note. Have them drink, shuffle the pictures and have them grade again. Repeat once more when the subject is on the edge of a coma. See how the ratings change for proof.

    Then I find out how the study was ACTUALLY done and I’m thinking… “that proves jack squat”.

  10. 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.

    In defense of academics carrying on apparently worthless studies the outcomes of which are known in advance, I suggestt many things people think they know the truth of turn out to be wrong upon real research. For example, almost everyone I know thinks that global trade makes everyone poorer, and leads to higher unemployment, where in fact the opposite is true–lack of global trade makes people poorer and less employable.

    The article by Daniel B. Klein in the Wall Street Journal on June 8, 2010: Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? has further examples.

  11. Jonh Galt says:
    9 June 2010 at 11:37 am

    I have developed a companion plan over the years called “Go Ugly Early”.

    “Go ugly early and avoid the rush.” Seems to me I have heard that one somewhere.

    I get the beer goggles. It’s the beer google stuff that has me confused. Can Google determine when I have been drinking? That must be some algorithm.

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