I blogged about this previously, and found a response by the study author, Marcus Jokela via a link to my post, the title of which is misunderstood, as I was accusing the Times Online of sexism, not the researcher. Anyway, here is his account of how his study was twisted:
Having your study publicized by the media is nice. Having your study misrepresented and misinterpreted in the process is not. The media coverage of my paper on physical attractiveness and having children had a bad start and even worse follow-up. The origin of the problem: Times Online news article sexing up the finding a bit too much (I wasn’t interviewed for this article at all and heard about it only after it had been published). Then things got worse with other journalists copying & slightly modifying the Times Online piece. Naturally, things were further muddled by the If-I-were-a-movie-critic-I-would-rate-movies-without-seeing-them-and-just-by-relying-on-discussions-overheard-in-a-pub columnists, the I-haven’t-read-the-paper-but-here’s-my-take-on-it-anyway bloggers and the ever so alert This-research-is-nonsense-I-want-my-tax-money-back-even-if-the-research-was-not-funded-by-my-tax-money readers.
Here are some clarifications and corrections to the press coverage. If you feel too exhausted reading it all, just try to focus on the words printed in bold. The original article can be found here.
1) The main point of the study was to see whether attractiveness predicts fertility in a contemporary American population, not whether people are becoming more or less attractive over time. The evolutionary extrapolation that people are becoming more attractive is just that â€“ an extrapolation that depends on assumptions not tested in the study, e.g., whether the association holds over time. Basically, the argument is clear: given that attractiveness is partly heritable and it is associated with reproductive differentials, the mechanism of sexual selection is expected to increase the mean of the trait over generations. This possibility was only briefly mentioned in the article …
The entire post is a terrific account of the way legitimate science gets deployed against women by the mainstream press. Also, the author hilariously writes:
There were some other, more minor misconceptions presented in the news articles but I will not bother to comment them all. On the other hand, there were also some news articles that were quite accurate in reporting the finding. It is worth adding that the few people who actually read my article were quite quick to notice that it did not make the claims that were circulated around in the media. I got several e-mails from these people because they were wondering if they had somehow misunderstood the original article!
On the more amusing side, the media flurry did have one funny unintended consequence. The Fox News covered the story by telling the viewers that evolution is driving women to become even more beautiful. A note to future historians: when tracing back the turning point at which conservatives begun to believe in the theory of evolution, please cite my article.