When research becomes news
I don’t know about you, but last week my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with posts about a new study that apparently showed that society had reached “peak beard.” People shared articles exclaiming that the study showed that when lots of men have whiskery chins (as is the case in today’s age of casual stubble and hipster beard chic), clean-shaven men are considered to be more attractive.
Well, that was the general summary I saw. However, the truth is not that simple. In the Australian study published in Biology Letters, participants were shown photos of 24 men. One group saw only men with beards, another, only clean-shaven men, a third, control group saw an even mix. The participants in each group were then shown photos of 12 more men—a mix of bearded and shaved—and asked to rate each man on a scale of attractiveness. The people who had just seen 24 bearded men in a row did tend to give the men with facial hair a lower score than the people who had just seen 24 men without beards and vice versa for the clean-shaven men.
However, what almost everyone missed out of their reporting is that across all of the participants in the study, bearded men received higher average scores than the clean-shaven guys. Research the Headlines has a good summary, finishing up with: “In terms of pure beardedness preference, full beards and both types of stubble were rated as more attractive than clean-shaven.”
So, a more accurate headline might be “Beards are attractive, but less so when there are lots of them.” This of course would be less exciting, and far less likely to get everybody sharing links clickbaiting headlines about how your friends with beards should shave them off now.
Why does this matter? The study doesn’t really, but our ability to interpret research and how it is reported does. When the misunderstanding over methods and reporting is about something a bit more serious than facial hair, the stakes are raised.
When our opinion on an issue influences the way we vote, or even the way we shop, it’s important the opinion is founded on the best information possible. Yesterday a friend sent me a link to a major report that said African farmers who work for certified Fairtrade suppliers live in worse conditions and are paid less on average than those working on non Fairtrade farms. Damning results indeed.
But by the time I looked at the link, Fairtrade had already published a response pointing out what they said are major flaws in the research, and the report had been taken down. Too late for the headlines though. How many people will have already seen news reports giving a rough outline of the scandalous accusations?
More to the point, how many of them will now think twice before spending a bit extra to buy Fairtrade, and yet not look again to see if there’s another side to the story?
Regardless of your position on Fairtrade or facial hair, it’s up to each of us to test the reliability of the information we rely on to make up our minds. And having investigated the matter fully, I have decided to stick with my gut feeling—the stubble stays.