Postman Pat Is Bad At His Job

“This would be a lot easier with a single-seat plane”
Photo by Cameron Gibson on Unsplash

Pat drives around with an unsecured animal with no thought to the safety of said animal or consideration for any allergies that may be present in his delivery population. An overreaction possibly, but it is becoming clear that the issue, unlike the cat, isn’t black and white. In the village of Greendale, there are 9 obvious children (33.3% of the total population). Based on a quick visual inspection, 5 of these children look more like Pat than they do their own parents. This is of course an unreliable indication, but it does raise suspicions that Pat may be delivering more than just the post. Of course, reducing the genetic variability of a fictional village in Cumbria doesn’t mean that Pat is a bad postman. Although observations of him opening other people’s mail, letting himself into homes uninvited and using a helicopter to get some balloons down from a tree provide hints that he is.

Postman Pat has not been associated with the Post Office and Royal Mail for a number of years. Despite the postal workers’ union describing the decision as a “disgrace” as Pat “stood for everything good about postmen”, Royal Mail dissociated themselves from him in 2000 as he was seen as no longer fitting with the company’s corporate image. That corporate image probably not including mistakenly giving a scarecrow a letter due to thinking it’s an actual human. Instead, Pat now runs a Special Delivery Service where he uses a high-tech command centre, limousine, snowmobile, single-seat plane, jeep, motorcycle, helicopter and bright red van to deliver the post to Greendale (population 27). That’s a bit unfair. He also occasionally delivers to Pencaster.

Pat is therefore in charge of a multi-million pound operation, more if you include the cat, and it’s probably worthwhile checking if he actually is as good at his job as his friends assume or if the occasional episodes of criminal behaviour mentioned hint at darker more incompetent possibilities.

“No burning letters behind me, no sirree.” Photo by Mofeda Dababo on Unsplash

I couldn’t get hold of the annual review specifications for Royal Mail as I am not employed there and the specifications for Special Delivery Service were not available due to it not being a thing. I could get the person specifications for what Royal Mail considers to be essential for a good postperson. These seem to be fair criteria against which to judge Pat’s competence. According to Royal Mail, a good postperson needs to:

  • Be upbeat and self-motivated
  • Love the outdoors
  • Have a good level of fitness
  • Be highly organised
  • Be resilient
  • Have flexibility within their role

A driving licence (with no more than 6 points) is also useful. Snowmobiles are not mentioned. To see whether Pat matches these specifications, I looked across the 196 episodes available and noted the occasions on which Pat displayed the required attributes.

Royal Mail also has targets for first class and special delivery. For example, in 2020, the target for mail delivered on time for first class and special delivery was 93.0% and 99.0%, respectively. While Royal Mail is the only UK mail delivery company required to publish Quality of Service performance against delivery targets every quarter, Pat basically lets us observe whether he meets these targets when working for Royal Mail or for Special Delivery Service, so his performance in this respect was also recorded (I checked how often his deliveries were on time).

There should be some caution in interpreting the results as it was just me doing the scoring so we can’t discount Confirmation Bias. These results were based on all of the episodes available to me (all of them) so we can sure we have reached data saturation. Another note of caution in interpreting these results is required as in most instances I read about the episodes rather than watching them due to reasons of time and my own wellbeing. Sadly, snow, rain, heat or gloom of night would have stayed this “researcher” in completing this “analysis”.

From the bar chart we can see that Pat does pretty well for being upbeat and showing a love of the outdoors. He scored comparatively low on organisation, fitness and flexibility. Presumably, he had a driving licence 100% of the time. There was no mention of his pilot’s licence.

It’s a different story when we look at how often he delivered the mail on time. Here Pat falls well below the targets set by the Royal Mail. Like, so far below that it won’t be long before we’re watching Mole Person Pat. It is unknown what the targets for the Special Delivery Service are, but you would hope they were higher than what Pat is achieving.

As shown below, these results are comparable when split by when Pat was working for Royal Mail and when he was working for Special Delivery Service. It could be argued that across several specifications, Pat appears to be performing worse numerically for Special Delivery Service than for Royal Mail. Despite millions of pounds worth of investment, Pat actually got worse at his job. Maybe we should change his name to Sunk Costs Pat.

Why then, is Pat still employed? In fact, in one episode he was actually given an award for the quality of his service! People obviously think Pat is good or at least competent at his job. But why?

I think what we are looking at is an example of the cognitive bias, the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect occurs when positive perceptions of something in one area influence perceptions in another area to be more positive. The classic example is where an individual is seen to be physically attractive and therefore assumed to also be a morally good person. In business, performance appraisal has been shown to be highly influence by the Halo Effect, as have results in trial by jury.

We can note that where Pat scores well against the ideal postperson specifications are in areas where you have to LOOK good at the job (upbeat, show a love of the outdoors), but that he doesn’t score so well against specifications where he has to BE GOOD at the job (organisation, flexibility, resilience, or coming within a million miles of meeting performance targets). The Halo Effect could mean that because Pat looks superficially good at his job, it will be assumed that he is good at his job. And then given a helicopter.

Overall, it’s unknown whether the Halo Effect is the main influence for Pat being bad at his job, but being perceived as good at his job. Future Postman Pat research might require a less obviously popular postman, perhaps Cliff Clavin from Cheers, for comparison of perceptions versus fictional postperson effectiveness. However, it is clear that fictional postmen do well with the Halo Effect as Moist von Lipwig, a postmaster from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, was very well thought of based on his charm and a gold suit. Although the comparison between Moist and Pat ends here as Moist actually ran a very effective postal service, whereas Pat might as well take everything with a stamp and kick it into a ditch. It’s OK though. Pat feels he’s a very happy man.

Don’t get me started on Fireman Sam.

Blue Tuesday: Is there too much work against Blue Monday?


This bear is leaving home because its owners believe that Blue Monday has a scientific origin. (Attribution)

Yesterday wasn’t Blue Monday. Or to use its full name, Blue Monday (A Normal Day Of The Year Which Was Rebranded Through Marketing With A False Veneer Of Misleading Science). Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) became a “not a thing” which happens as a result of holiday sellers, Sky Travel, and public relations company, Porter Novelli, selling holidays and public relating. They invented a formula which supposedly calculates that the third Monday in January is the most depressing day of the year and stuck what looks like a scientist on the front to complete its fancy-dress costume of sexy fake science concept. Needless to say, the average mood of everyone is too complex a thing to calculate with the simple equation being touted. Saying it can is a horrendous misrepresentation of the scientific method, human emotions and mental health. The added scientist, Cliff Arnall, is not a doctor or a professor of psychology. Or of anything. Saying he is is…

It’s difficult to argue with the success of the Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) idea as a piece of marketing. On the day itself, the number of companies, including charities, that use the term to promote their products or causes is vast. With the general theme of spending money to improve your mood, Blue Monday (ANDOTYWWRTMWAFVOMS) is used to sell pretty much everything; be that the holidays it was designed to sell, cars, chocolate or financial advice. Perhaps more subtly, some groups have tried to re-purpose Blue Monday (I’ll stop now). They argue that while the supposed science might be a gargantuan heap o’ nonsense, it can still be a day to consider and support those who are unhappy. In addition, a lot of people have put a lot of work into explaining why, as a scientific concept, Blue Monday has the same credibility has half a brick with a picture of Dr Emmett Brown sneezed onto it by a guinea pig. So much so, that the publication of pieces debunking the science of Blue Monday have become as much of a tradition as the shower of gaudy sadverts.


This dog is more scientific than the formula for Blue Monday. (Attribution).

For the last few years, I have gained the impression that the pieces attempting to counteract the Blue Monday information have become more common than the items using its selling power. If this was indeed the case, the main thing keeping Blue Monday alive would be the valiant efforts to kill it. This could be placed in the Venn diagram of ironic things and bad things. However, whether this is the case is far from decided. While I have seen the same claim from others, my perception that anti Blue Monday work is more common than pro Blue Monday work is just that, a perception. Perceptions are at risk of bias.

Confirmation bias would mean that I might be interpreting information in a way that confirms my pre-existing beliefs. All the evidence I’ve seen shows that confirmation bias exists. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (or frequency illusion) would mean something that’s recently been noticed by me, suddenly seems to occur at a greatly increased rate. Once you’ve noticed the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Finally, the perception that anti Blue Monday work is more common than pro Blue Monday work might be the result of an echo chamber. I’m more likely to associate (digitally or in the great outdoors) with people who hold similar points of view to me. I’ll therefore see opinions the same as mine with greater frequency, and if I’m not careful will come to believe that those opinions are the most common. Everything I’ve seen on Twitter confirms I’m right.

One potential antidote to the plethora of human bias is correctly analysed data. I didn’t have that, so I took to the internet. On 16th January 2017, I searched for the term, “Blue Monday” on Twitter. I didn’t specifically use the hashtag because I wanted to avoid people or organisations using it just to make their tweets more locatable on the specific day. On a separate note, SEX! I then counted the tweets that seemed to believe the effect of Blue Monday, the tweets that actively opposed the effect of Blue Monday, and the tweets that didn’t believe Blue Monday, but wanted to use it to at least gain some benefit. I did this until the total tweets I’d counted reached 100. To be counted, a tweet had to at least hint at belief in Blue Monday or otherwise. It couldn’t just spout a load of a nonsense about sofas and then end with a hashtag. I also did a similar thing with Google (incognito window to avoid the influence of my search history) to count sites, news items, blog posts etc. and place them in the same categories as were used for the tweets. This was also completed when the total links reached was equal to 100. I later checked the Google search o a separate device and found the resulting list to be practically the same.

The results can be seen below. In summary, the pro Blue Monday items were much greater in the number than the anti Blue Monday items. These were both much more prevalent than items trying to re-purpose the day. My perception was wrong, and unfortunately the work to demonstrate that the idea of Blue Monday is anti-scientific rubbish appears to still has some way to go.


Pie part showing the proportion of pro Blue Monday, anti Blue Monday and re-purposing Blue Monday items.


One thing to note however, was that out of the pro Blue Monday items, 72% were advertisements. As discussed, these would make the argument that it’s the saddest day of the year so why not buy chocolate/hair gel/happiness? It is unclear to what extent the people behind these believe that Blue Monday was a scientific concept. While their adverts vaguely hint at belief, it’s just as likely that the mention of Blue Monday and its supposed effects are being used as devices to enhance how noticeable their brand is on a specific day. An increasingly difficult task given how common the use of the Blue Monday “brand” is. It seems to me that an advert that went with something other than Blue Monday marketing on the third Monday in January would be the one to stand out.

I’m not sure why efforts to educate people as to the non-scientific origins of Blue Monday are not working or even if they are actually not working in the first place. As discussed, it’s possible people know all of this, but find the term useful for their purposes; whether these are charitable or otherwise. Indeed, some news outlets may be using anti Blue Monday work to join in and take advantage of the temporary interest while maintaining an appearance of credibility. There’s no point in having your cake if you can’t eat it.

Ultimately and unfortunately, it appears that not much can be done about the Blue Monday juggernaut. I might still hold out hope for those valiantly explaining the gibberish behind the claims and even for those re-purposing the day for more noble causes. Judging by the current proportions, these efforts need to increase or change their methods to become more effective. How? I don’t know, although at least I’ve got nearly a year to think about it.

One thing you can do is donate to/support/um… those things, the Rethink Blue Monday campaign to raise awareness for the real issues of mental health and why blue Monday is, to use a polite phrase, factually faecal. The link is here.

How unreliable are the judges on Strictly Come Dancing?


That very clean glass wall won’t hold itself up. Photo by Dogboy82 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Strictly Come Dancing, one of the BBC’s most popular shows involving celebrities moving in specific ways with experts at moving in specific ways while other experts check if they’re moving specifically enough contains certainties and uncertainties. We’re not sure who will be voted out in any particular week. We don’t know know what the audience are going to complain about. An injured woman not dancing! I was furious with rage! We do know that Craig Revel Horwood will use the things he knows to make a decision about whether he likes a dance or not while saying something mean. We can be pretty sure what Len Goodman’s favourite river in Worcestershire, film starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman and Star Trek: Voyager character is. But can we be sure that the scores awarded by the judges to the dancers are accurate and fair?

In science, a good scoring system has at least three qualities. These include validity (it measures what it’s supposed to measure), usability (it’s practical) and reliability (it’s consistent). It’s difficult to assess the extent to which the scoring system in Strictly Come Dancing possesses these qualities. We don’t really know the criteria (if any) that the judges use to assign their scores other than they occasionally involve knees not quite being at the right angle, shoulders not quite being at the right height, and shirts not quite being able to be done up. As such, deciding whether the scores are valid or not is tricky. The scoring system appears to be superficially usable in that people use it regularly in the time it takes for a person to walk up some stairs and talk to Claudia Winkleman about whether they enjoyed or really enjoyed the kinetic energy they just transferred. In some ways, checking reliability is easier. Especially if we have a way to access every score the judges have ever awarded. And we do. Thanks Ultimate Strictly!

For a test to be reliable, we need it to give the same score when it’s measuring the same thing under the same circumstances. If the same judge saw the same dance twice under consistent conditions, we’d expect a dance to get the same score. This sort of test-retest reliability is difficult to achieve with something like Strictly Come Dancing. The judges aren’t really expected to provide scores for EXACTLY the same dance more than once. Otherwise you’d end up getting the same comments all the time; which would be as difficult to watch as the rumba is for men to dance. Ahem. However, you can look at how consistently (reliably) different judges score the same dance. If all judges consistently award dances similar scores, then we can be more sure that the system for scoring dancing is reliable between raters. If judges consistently award wildly different scores for the same dances, we might be more convinced that they’re just making it up as they go along, or “Greenfielding it” as they say in neuroscience.

To test this, all scores from across all series (except the current series, Christmas specials and anything involving Donny Osmond as a guest judge) were collated and compared. Below, we can see that by and large the judges have fairly similarly median scores (Arlene Phillips and Craig = 7, Len, Bruno Tonioli, Alesha Dixon and Darcey Bussell = 8). The main differences appear to be in the range of scores with Craig and Arlene appearing to use a more complete range of possible scores.


Box plot (shows median scores, inter-quartile ranges, maximum and minimum scores for each judge)

A similar picture is seen if we use the mean score as an average, with Craig (mean score = 6.60) awarding lower scores than the other judges, whose mean scores awarded range from 7.05 (Arlene) to 7.65 (Len and Darcy). Strictly speaking (ironically) we shouldn’t be using the mean as an average for the dance scores. The dance scores can be classified as ordinal data (scores can be ordered, but there is no evidence that the difference between consecutive scores is equal) so many would argue that any mean value calculated is utter nonsense meaningless not an optimum method for observing central tendency. However, I think in this situation there are enough scores (9) for the mean to be useful; like the complete and utter measurement transgression that I am. At a first glance, these scores don’t look too different and we might consider getting out the glitter-themed cocktails and celebrating the reliability of our judges.


Bar chart showing mean scores and variance for each judge.

In order to test the hypothesis that there was no real effect of “judge” on dance scores, I did a statistics at the data. In this case a Kruskal-Wallis test because of the type of measures in use (one independent variable of ‘judge’ divided into different levels of ‘different judges’ and one independent variable of ordinal data). And yes, it would be simpler if Kruskal-Wallis was what it sounded like, a MasterChef judge with a fungal infection. Perhaps surprisingly, the results from the test used could be interpreted as showing that the probability that the judge doesn’t affect the score was less than 1 in 10,000 (P< 0.0001). The table below shows between which judges the differences were likely to exist (P< 0.0001 for all comparisons shown as red).


Table showing potential differences between judges in terms of scores they give to dancers

Thus it would seem that the probability that Craig isn’t have an effect on score is relatively small. In this instance, Craig appears to be awarding slightly lower scores compared to the other judges. The same could be said for Arlene, except if she is being compared to Craig, where she seems to award slightly higher scores.

So it transpires that the scores on Strictly Come Dancing are indeed unreliable. Arlene did and Craig is throwing the whole system out of alignment like a couple of Paso Doble doing a Jive at a Waltz. Tango!

Possibly not though, for a number of reasons. 4.) I am clearly not an expert in statistics, so I may have just performed the analysis incorrectly. 2.) If differences do exist, they are relatively subtle and are likely to be meaningless within individual shows, only coming to light (and bouncing off a glitter ball) when we look across large numbers of scores. That is to say, that a statistical difference may exist, but this difference likely makes no practical difference. A.) At least it’s not The X Factor.

Keep dancing. And doing maths.

Does Sean Bean Always Die at the End?

The Alpha Sean Bean, shown here to be still alive. The Alpha Sean Bean, shown here to be still alive.
“Sean Bean TIFF 2015” by NASA/Bill Ingalls. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons .

There’s a quote from a character in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, and J.R.R. Tolkein’s character from some book or other, that has been doing the rounds as an internet meme for quite some time: “War makes corpses of us all.”  Of course you all know it, it’s ridiculously famous, after all, one does not simply forget a Faramir quote. Much better than Boromir. In Sean Bean’s case however, the quote might as well be “appearing in a role in television or film makes a corpse of me, Sean Bean.” Sean Bean is well known for dying in films. So much so, that there exists a campaign specifically against the further onscreen killing of Sean Bean. At least, I think it still exists. It might have died.

Basically it is a fairly common assumption that if Sean Bean is in something, he will most likely not make it to the end. However, everyone knows what happens when you assume; you make a prick of yourself. Is it actually true that Sean Bean always dies? In psychology, confirmation bias describes the tendency for people to better recall information that confirms their existing beliefs than information that would refute them. The frequency illusion is where something (it can be an event or just an object) which has recently been brought to a person’s attention suddenly seems to occur or appear with greater frequency than it did before it had been noticed. This is also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon and once you know about it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. So it is possible that the appearance of Sean Bean’s repeated celluloid mortality is a function of some common cognitive biases rather than him actually ending more times than a Sunday furniture sale. The following information that was collected to test this may contain spoilers for Sean Bean projects. Unless you believe the appearance of Sean Bean in a cast list is in itself a spoiler.

Using some sort of internet search engine (if you want to find a similar one, you can look it up on Google) all of Sean Bean’s roles in film and television were listed to create a population of Sean Beans. From here forward, the collective noun for Sean Beans used will be “population” rather than the perhaps more common “can” or “cemetery.” Sean Bean’s roles in theatre or performing voiceover in video games were not included due to a combination of being too difficult to include, laziness and the words “Sean Bean” starting to lose all meaning. The actual actor Sean Bean (the Alpha Sean) was also included, as while technically it is an ongoing role, we do know with reasonable certainly that Sean Bean will die at the end of it. The Alpha Sean was not included in any cause of death calculations in case I end up as a suspect in a future murder investigation. Jupiter Ascending was not included for obvious reasons.

The number of times Sean Bean was dead at the end of a film/TV show and the number of times Sean Bean was alive at the end of a film/TV show were counted and used to calculate the incidence of death for the total population of Sean Beans. The incidence rate is the number of new cases of a disorder or death within a population over a specified period of time. This is commonly express in terms of per 100,000 persons per year. In terms of deaths, this in some ways can be seen as equivalent to the Mortality Rate. Some basic demographics, causes of deaths and intentionality of deaths were also calculated.

The demographics for the population of Sean Beans are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Sean Bean Demographics

Characteristic Sean Bean Numbers
N 75
Mean (SD) age, years 6,0810,851.05 (523,114,369.60)
Species, n (%)
Actor 1 (1.33)
Human 71 (94.67)
Lion 1 (1.33)
Portrait 1 (1.33)
God 1 (1.33)
Alive, n (%) 45 (60.00)
Dead, n (%) 30 (40.00)

The incidence of Sean Bean deaths across the total existence so far of Sean Beans (6000 BCE to 2072) is 4.85 per 100,000 person per year. The causes of Sean Bean death and intentionality of Sean Bean death are shown in figures 1 and 2, respectively. The most common cause of death was being shot by a gun. The best cause of death was fall from cliff due to a herd of cows. Most Sean Bean deaths were intentional (as a result of homicide) compared with accidental and orcicide.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Cause of Sean Bean death.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Intentionality of Sean Bean death.

The aim of all this Beanian death numbering was to determine if there was any truth to the common belief that Sean Bean always dies at the end. Examination of a fairly complete population of Sean Beans shows that this is not the case, with 60% of Sean Beans managing to survive the time it takes for many film and TV directors to tell a story. If you are a Sean Bean though, it seems you are most likely to die by being shot by a human. There may be some money to be made in a line of Sean Bean-specific bullet-proof vests.

So why is the belief that Sean Bean always shuffles off the mortal coil at the end so common? The application of confirmation bias to this has already been discussed, but for that particular bias to take effect, there must be an existing belief to confirm. The earliest manifestation of Sean Bean’s tendency for premature televisual corpse shenanigans that I could be found was approximately around his fourth appearance. However, at a preliminary glance, Sean Beans don’t seem to kick the bucket particularly often early on in the ascendance of Sean Beans to make any reputational impact.

If we divide the appearance of Sean Beans into tertiles (an ordered distribution divided into three parts, each containing a third of the population, not an aquatic reptile with a shell) and look at the proportion of deaths as time progresses, we get something that looks like figure 3.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Proportion of Sean Bean deaths by Sean Bean time tertile.

We can see that if 3 is the most recent tertile and 1 is the furthest in the past, then the Sean Bean death rate appears to be greatest in the middle of the population’s progression through time. In psychology, the serial position effect describes the tendency for people to recall items earlier (the primacy effect) and later (the recency effect) in a list the best, with items in the middle being recalled the least. This would not explain the Sean Bean always dies reputation, as in such a model we would expect more deaths in the first and last tertile. Besides, one explanation for the serial position effect is that earlier items are stored more effectively in long term memory than the other items, while more recent items are still present in working memory and are thus easily available for recall. This would only apply to these data if people experienced Sean Bean necrosis as a list in front of them, which most people (besides me) don’t. Even if the data matched a serial positioning explanation, it would be a stretch (i.e. wrong) to use it to explain the Sean Bean deceased at the finale reputation phenomenon.

Rise of the Nicole Kidmen would be a good episode of Doctor Who. Rise of the Nicole Kidmen would be a good episode of Doctor Who.

Characters don’t become instantly well known in popular culture. It takes time for a reputation to build and saturate society. In this respect, perhaps we can consider the middle tertile to be more akin to the starting point for a reputation i.e. Sean Beans will be more well known, with more opinions being formed about them. The Sean Bean death rate here is 52%, meaning that during this period Sean Beans were slightly more likely than not to die at the end. This may be enough to start the rumour of Sean Beans’ non-existence by the credits and establish a source for confirmation bias.

Characters don’t exist in isolation. They usually exist in a complex ecosystem of other populations. The Sean Bean population exists alongside the population of Bruce Willises (Willi?) and the population of Nicole Kidmans (Kidmen?) among others. Important data to consider would therefore be how often Sean Beans die in comparison to other populations. If the comparative death rate of Sean Beans is noticeably higher than that of other comparable populations, then this may explain the Sean Bean clog-popping conundrum. Future “research” should focus on this (I can’t be bothered right now).

It was suggested to me by KTBUG (kgwright73) that the popularity of the mode of presentation of Sean Bean would have an impact on the perception of his tendency for pushing up the daisies. It seems feasible Sean Beans die in more popular things and live in less popular things then the public perception would be that of a gentleman prone to leaving his life behind. To this end (where available) I took an average of lifetime box office takings for films where Sean Bean died and films where Sean Bean lived (figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4. Average lifetime box office takings by Sean Bean survival.

Figure 4 shows that films where Sean Bean shook hands with the Grim Reaper on average took more at the box office than films where Sean Bean continued respiring. If we use this as a crude measure of popularity (and it is very crude, subject to bias from missing TV shows and films where I simply couldn’t get the info) and impact on cultural awareness, then films where Sean Bean becomes an ex Sean Bean seem to have made a larger cultural impact. This could certainly be at least one source of the idea that Sean Bean always dies.

Please note, I am in no way suggesting that Sean Bean dying in it makes a film popular. As the old saying goes, “Sean Bean’s death correlation, does not prove film popularity causation.” You all know it.

In conclusion it would seem that Sean Bean’s reputation for always dying at the end is somewhat over exaggerated, with a death rate of approximately 40%. Sean Beans are most likely to die from being shot intentionally by a human or from being in the middle of their career trajectory. The Sean Bean Ex-Parrot Meme may be best explained by a high death rate at a time when Sean Beans were likely to be reaching their maximum prevalence in the public eye and by films which feature a Sean Bean death having made a larger cultural impact than films that feature a living Sean Bean at the end. These perceptions feed into confirmation bias. And then Sean Bean died.

The Science of “The Science of…” Articles

Science of Word Cloud


The science of biscuits, ducks, politics, trains and glitter. If not for these then it’s likely you’ll have seen at least one article in the media that claims to explain the science of something. But what does that mean? Does it mean the articles contain a list of facts? Sometimes, although you’d have thought not because science is a methodology rather than a list of facts; and articles with the title “The Facts about…” are often confined to pieces about supermarkets, dieting and celebrity gossip. “The Facts about Ryan Gosling, the secret food behind his rock-hard toe muscles and how he used them to woo an eagle.” Like that.

However, neither should “The Science of…” articles be the direct reporting of a piece of research. That’s what we have scientific journals and 0.5% of science press releases for. It might be fairly safe to argue (he said on the internet) that a “The Science of…” article should contain some facts that were obtained using the scientific method, some description and criticism of that method and how it explains the phenomenon in question. Is this what “The Science of…” articles are doing? “Is this what people think “The Science of…” articles should be doing? Is the device of asking yourself a question overused in writing? Yes.

The aim of this post is therefore to aim some science(ish) at “The Science of…” articles to investigate what they should contain and if they contain them. The hypothesis is that “The Science of…” articles exist and contain some stuff. The null hypothesis is that “The Science of… articles don’t exist and don’t contain stuff. The square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Hippopotamuses are large mammals.


First I conducted a carefully thought out pre-study survey (I asked on Twitter what they thought should be in a good, “Science of…” article and had a cup of tea and a biscuit). I received 23 responses. This places the power of this experiment closer to the kitten pulling a super-tanker using string woven from Climate Change Denier accuracy end of the spectrum than to the Superman with He-man’s sword, SuperTed’s secret magic word and The Black Widow’s everything end. I then took all of the responses and used them to make a word cloud because of infographics. When this accomplished nothing more than my delight at seeing it create the phrase “inductive gorilla” I decided some more analysis was needed.

Using the word cloud and the most obvious themes from the responses I made a list of what a good, “The Science of…” article should contain or be. This was as follows:

  • Big words
  • Comprehensive
  • Diagram/Graph/Infographic
  • Evidence
  • Inductive reasoning
  • Links to more in-depth stuff
  • Pictures
  • Referencing
  • Theory

This list isn’t necessarily what I think a good “The Science of…” article should contain. It may not even be what the majority of people think a good “The Science of…” article should contain. I can only speak for the people who responded to my question and sadly can’t take the opinions of the people who didn’t respond (the grey Twitterature) into account. I also asked what improvement could be made to produce a better class of “The Science of…” article, but I’ll save talking about that until the discussion.

I then used an internet search engine which might have been Bing (it wasn’t Bing) and typed in “The Science of” and took the first 10 articles that were the “The Science of… “ articles.

The Science of Search


Figure 1. The search engine suggestions for The Science of a.k.a. a fairly depressing poem.

I read the 10 articles and after multiple moments of increasingly less quiet despair, I determined if they satisfied the criteria identified by my survey. I then turned the results into graphs because of graphs and had a look to see what I thought/wanted them to show. By this of course I mean, the results were analysed and any trends in the data were identified.


The table below displays the first 10 articles produced by my internet search that were “The Science of…” articles and what I initially thought before reading them. This doesn’t even slightly matter, but I was told once that people relate to science articles more if they contain a personal element. The story of how I was told this is of course heart-warming.

Table 1. The articles found and my initial reaction to them

Articles Table


Figure 2 shows the source of the articles found. Obviously as I used an internet search engine, the articles were all technically on websites, but some of those articles (40%) were associated with specific newspapers and magazines. Magazines and newspapers put articles online! You can practically hear the ground breaking.

Pie Chart








Figure 2. Sources of the “Science of…” articles.

Figure 3 shows the proportion of articles that contained the desirable qualities identified by the survey. This was decided by me after reading them. You might come to a different conclusion and you’re welcome to read them and see what you think. I wouldn’t recommend it though. Unless you hate your spare time.









Figure 4 is an Action Man with eagle-eye action.

Action Man








Figure 4. You know.


 The whole point of this post was to use scientific(ish) methods to question what makes a good “The Science of…” article and see if “The Science of…” articles are doing those things. That depends. In science, it always depends. Note to self: make an “In science, it always depends” t-shirt. As you can see from figure 3, in terms of using big words and pictures, “The Science of…” articles are doing quite well. Ninety percent of articles had a picture and 60% used big words! Make them waterproof and you’ve got the ingredients for an educational children’s book! Over 50% of the articles contained evidence, inductive reasoning and theory. This seems good, but isn’t. In fact it doesn’t even seem good. A science article without evidence?! Fine. I’ll get back to you with what I think about that when I’ve finished watching this football game that doesn’t have a leather orb or any teams of entitled orb-kickers. The rest of the results are similarly dismal, with only 40% of articles being judged as comprehensive and about 25% of the articles linking to more in-depth material. I’ll let them off in terms of diagrams and formal references on account of them being articles about science rather than actual research papers. Something I think scientists would do well to keep in mind when reading and criticising science articles.

Can “The Science of…” articles be improved? Well, you’ll recall I asked about this. The suggestions for improvement are shown in the table below.

Table 2. Suggestions for improving “The Science of…” articles.






So there you go science writers. Your problems solved. If your problems were a lack of pedantic titles and sparse nudity.

Ultimately what I read seems to indicate that “The Science of…” in an articles title is generally shorthand for “This article offers to explain something. It might mention science. Go on. Read it. SCIENCE!”  If it actually contains some well-written information about the scientific method, what it found and how it might (and might not) explain the subject at hand, then that’s a bonus. Although it should be a given.

I should probably point out the flaws in this research, which for the most part are obvious as well as numerous. I only look at 10 articles, they were the first 10 articles I found, it was only me that looked at them and the criteria I used to judge them while, not arbitrary, were certainly not extensive. This clearly isn’t a high standard or even legitimate piece of scientific research. Unless Nature wants to publish it in which case that stuff just then was a hilarious joke. Most of the criteria could probably be applied to this post with it doing quite well as a “The Science of…” article and that perhaps would be a travesty (adj. music like that of Travis). However, maybe you’ll have a think about what “The Science of…” articles should be like and expect a decent standard from any such articles you read in the future. The Guardian has a series of articles/posts about science writing and how to do it if you’re interested in that sort of thing. You must be a little bit. You just read this for a start. If nothing else you’ll have seen some of the sections that go into the write-up of scientific research (introduction, method and so on). Also the inductive gorilla.


The Guardian. Secrets of Good Science Writing. Available from:

Google. Google. [Online][Accessed loads] Available from: Google it.

BBC. The Science of Love. Available from:

BBC. The Science Behind Why We Take Selfies. Available from:

Bartlett. T. The Science of Hatred. Available from:

Fermilab. The Science of Matter, Space and Time. Available from:

Adams. S. The Science of Hangovers. Available from:

Keim. B. The Science of Handwriting. Available from:

Boggs. B. The Science of Citizenship. Available from:

Woolaston. V. The Science of Santa: Mr Claus will eat 150 BILLION calories and visit 5,556 houses per SECOND this Christmas Eve. Available from:

Chivers. T. The Science of Christmas: Santa Claus, his sleigh and presents. Available from:

Popper. B. The Science of ‘Her’: we’re going to start falling in love with our computers. Available from:



Women are Funny.

Do not, under any circumstances, Google "funny women" to find an image for your blog post.

Do not, under any circumstances, Google “funny women” to find an image for your blog post.

When you type the phrase, “women comedians” into Google the second suggestion that appears is “women comedians aren’t funny.”Now I’ve no idea how Google works, probably librarian-trained crows, but this does seem like a worryingly common-place opinion. I have had a discussion fairly recently which involved the other person saying, “But women just aren’t funny” which made me concerned that the person I was talking to had never met or spoken to a woman. And the person I was talking to was a woman! Probably still is.

It’s not up to me to decide what’s funny. What people find humorous, while sharing many commonalities, varies wildly and so does what people say and do in an effort to be funny. Farts! This variation is obviously true of women who much like snowflakes, fingerprints or human beings are all individual and unique. Some women will be funnier on average than other women and funnier on average than some men.  The funniest woman is likely as funny as the funniest man. I don’t even though how you’d reliably judge “funniest”. What unit would it be measured in? MilliMillicans?

It’s not up to me to defend women. They are perfectly capable of defending themselves. Declaring that women simply lack the ability to be funny is odd though. While there are many theories as to what is humorous, one prevalent idea is that laughter comes with incongruity. This theory states that humour is perceived at the moment of realisation of incongruity between a concept and the real thing in relation to that concept. If this were the case (and it certainly seems to be at least some of the time) if you claim that women can’t be funny then you are claiming that women can’t conceive of ideas and situations not matching. This is an ironically difficult notion to conceive of.

Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated.

Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated.

I’m not especially interested in whether the ideas that women aren’t funny or that women aren’t as funny as men are true or not. They’re blatantly not.  The Funny Women Awards have just celebrated their 11th year with the 2013 winners being duo Twisted Loaf. The Funny Women Awards unlikely to have years where they can’t award anything due to women being unusually mirthless for a select 365 days. There are multiple examples of very funny women including Sarah Pascoe (@sarapascoe), Sarah Millican (@SarahMillican75), Rachel Parris (@iamrachelparris), and Gabby Hutchinson Crouch (@Scriblit). I have purposefully not made this list extensive as I am sure to miss out some excellent individuals and some idiot is bound to sweep a paw across the list and state that “None of dem are funny” as if it were an objective truism rather than a subjective comedic preference.

I’m more interested in considering the arguments people use to justify this opinion and whether they stand up to scrutiny (they won’t). I’m going to use a vague biopsychosocial approach to do this. Not because I think detractors of female comedy, or as it is sometimes known “comedy” do so but because it’s a reasonably simple way to manage the ideas.


Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (when he wasn’t busy tweeting about students being fat) proposed that human characteristics like humour evolved by sexual selection. Sexual selection: good name for a part of evolutionary theory, bad name for a box of confectionary. He argues that humour (which he states has little survival value) emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as intelligence. On this basis if you argue that women aren’t or can’t be funny you would be arguing that either women can’t use humour to show their intelligence (clearly wrong), that they can but they don’t (clearly wrong because of examples) or that if they did men might not appreciate it (ahem). Women are showing intelligence through humour and people are ignoring it or at worse threatened by it? They would have to be pretty small-minded, insecure people. At this stage you can assume I am giving meaningful looks.

Another evolutionary psychology theory takes a break from copying Rudyard Kipling and argues that, like male deer clashing antlers, humour is produced by males competitively to impress potential mates for breeding. Consistent with this theory is research that females indicate a preference for mates who makes them laugh, whereas males prefer a mate who laughs at their humour.

However the data are not entirely consistent with this view. Most studies find male humour appeals most to other men.  In purely evolutionary terms, if you are in search of a mate to breed with, attracting a bunch of guffaws and their supposed sexual advances from members of the same gender isn’t the best move. Secondarily this theory in no way explains why women can’t do the same thing. If you’re arguing for a theory, it’s not really enough to state that they just don’t. Any attempts by MRI to catch the ovaries strangling jokes before they leave the body have thus far failed. So we’re left with a theory that tries to make humour the exclusive domain of rutting men, but fails like a pleasant look on Piers Morgan’s face.


Lee Mack on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs has said fewer women become comedians because they are not so inclined to show-off or be competitive in conversation. Lee Mack stated “I am only quoting other scientific reports on it.  When men sit around together and talk they are very competitive… When you get six women in a room together they share a lot more…and it’s a more interactive. “This idea may have links to the evolutionary theories seen previously.

The concept that men are more likely to do stand-up comedy or just be funny because they are more competitive than women is pervasive. Generally, research into how groups of single and mixed sexes converse agree with what Lee Mack is saying. A sentence I never thought I’d type. But these are just tendencies. Women may be more likely to support each other in conversation, but that doesn’t mean they all do it all the time. They can also be competitive and try to show off. Same goes for men for support and chances are it’s largely context dependent.

These studies investigated conversation and weren’t about being funny and/or a stand-up comedian. Just because a woman is on average more likely not to be competitive in conversation, doesn’t mean she won’t change her style of interaction when “performing” to her friends or performing onstage as a comedian.

It was depressingly difficult to find a picture of a female clown that wasn't trying to be "sexy".

It was depressingly difficult to find a picture of a female clown that wasn’t trying to be “sexy”.

Finally and more importantly, competition and showing off doesn’t necessarily equate to funnier. For some reason people who make this argument seem to be focussing on one style of comedy. One-upmanship is fine for some things (human pyramids and so on), but a lot of comedy relies on interaction, support and listening e.g. improvisation, sketch comedy. Stand-up itself doesn’t need to be competitive as such and many a skilled comedian can build a hilarious act through audience interaction and support. Just watch Dara Ó Briain open a show.

Social (and some psychology)

The entertainment industry seems to agree with the idea that women are not or can’t be funny, or at least can’t be as funny as men. One figure tossed around is that only 10% of stand-up comedians are women and it’s relatively rare to see more than one woman on one of the ubiquitous comedy panel shows.  I don’t have the data to argue that many more women want to be or are funny and hard-working enough to be successful stand-up comedians and lack or don’t see the opportunity, but given societal and prevalent psychological bias it seems a likely explanation.

It would seem that across an alarming swathe of society, humour and the production of humour is not valued or even recognised in women.  If you think women aren’t funny and as a result ignore it when they are then what’s the incentive for women to be funny? Lo and behold you fulfil your own bias. Or you try to. if you hold the ridiculous opinion that women aren’t funny and as proof try to point out a non-existent lack of funny women then by your own logic you only have yourself to blame. Luckily there are women who defy this societal bias to produce excellent comedy.

Research shows humorous items are often remembered more successfully, in a phenomenon known as the humour effect. For example in one study (linked to already in these ramblings) related to providing funny captions, the items judged as funnier were remembered better. The analyses also provided evidence for a humour-based retrieval bias.  Individuals of both genders tended to misattribute humorous captions to male writers. This was true both for misremembering captions whose author’s sex the participants knew and for when participants were only guessing the sex of a caption author. So again it’s not that women can’t or aren’t being funny, it’s that due to existing societal bias, when they are you don’t remember or worse, you remember the humour and think it was a man that did it. Again you only have yourself to blame for thinking there are no funny women. “I don’t remember ever doing this!” you might shout. Quite.

The Guff at the Long-Awaited End

Ultimately there appears to be no strong argument that women can’t be funny or aren’t funny or aren’t as funny as men.  If you think there are, then you are contributing to the biased social and psychological forces that contrive give that appearance.  This isn’t surprising and I’m sorry if any of this has come across as patronising.  I don’t think that people who hold that opinion have even though about it that much other than as a subtle impact of prejudice. Then why bother taking-apart the arguments behind women being “not funny” at all? To paraphrase Josh Whedon, “I’ve got a theory, it could be bunnies…”


Copy and Paste Science Stories


Nobody ever asks the infinite monkeys to write an original piece.

Nobody ever asks the infinite monkeys to write an original piece.

Science is often reported badly in the press. There a number of reasons for this and it’s a complex topic which I’m not going to cover in this blog post. Part of the problem may be the use of press releases for studies that may have public interest before they have been rigorously reviewed by the scientific community. Typically the public interest angle is enhanced through claims technically but tenuously linked to the study being reported. These press releases are often then reported almost verbatim by the press with little accurate interpretation. This isn’t just a problem with journal or academic institution press releases and can be due to companies performing surveys and then releasing the results masquerading as research to promote their product. Examples of this include the most depressing day of the year “research” performed by Sky Travel and Lloyds Pharmacy and their survey to sell carbon monoxide detectors.

Ultimately this leads to a situation where complex science is reported incorrectly and grouped with non-science copied and pasted from dubious survey results for the overall degradation of the public understanding of science. For example, recently the Mail Online reported a comedic science blog, written with predictions invented with humorous intent as genuine science prediction. Largely this was performed using direct quotations from the piece, rewritten in the third-person to give the impression of reporting. Dave copied this technique for the purposes of making a semi-humorous point about this kind of writing.

Sarah Griffiths, a kind of journalist for the Mail Online Scientist copied some details from the Brain Flapping comedy science blog written by Dr Dean Burnett for The Guardian without noticing it was full of joke predictions in a list of features he predicts humans could evolve. It includes tentacles, colour-changing skin, flexible skeletons and selective hearing. The article notices some humour when they note that the neuroscientist humorously notes that as evolution takes so long no one will be around to see his predictions are right or wrong. Taking inspiration from the chameleon, humans could evolve the ability to consciously change their skin colour; they wrote that he wrote in a blog for The Guardian. They muse that he muses that this could happen if humans evolved chomatophores – pigment-containing and light-reflecting organelles in cells found in reptiles – or even by using technology, but also note that he notes that whatever the case there are numerous evolutionary benefits.

‘Being able to either visually blend in or stand out at will would be a potent advantage in modern society, one that evolutionary pressures could make more common,’ they say that he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “context” as a noun representing the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

Sarah Griffiths points out that Dr Burnett points out that humans already have the ability to focus their hearing on certain conversations and noises, but the human ear does not have a physical mechanism for doing this. She believes that he believes that over time selective hearing could become more important – perhaps to filter out increasing noise from social media and other sources of continuous information.

‘Rather than diverting attention to more relevant inputs, humans could develop the ability to actively ‘tune out’ things they don’t want to hear, like closing your eyes to block an unpleasant sight,’ She said that he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “satire” as a noun representing the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

While this could result in humans taking in less information over all, The Mail Online believes that Dr Burnett believes future humans might be less stressed and angry to live longer, happier lives.

A copy of a picture of some paste.

A copy of a picture of some paste.

They say that he said that in order for humans to use keyboards and touch screens to communicate with computers more easily, we could evolve more dexterous hands that allow us to make precise movements but are less rigid to help us type faster. Which he did. Actually he typed it using his human fingers and a computer keyboard and checking the words on a computer monitor using his human eyes. All of this was coordinated by Dr Dean Burnett’s human nervous system I can report in a tedious attempt at excess description to make it look like I’ve given the issue some thought.

They could even end up more like ‘tentacles like those on a sea anemone,’ they say he said. Which he did. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “repetition” as a noun representing the action of repeating something that has already been said or written. Repetition can be used to hammer a point home or for humorous effect with varying degrees of success.

While noting that Dr Burnett noted that there might be limited practical reasons for humans to develop tentacles, they recognise humour and report it when they recognise that he humorously suggests that they could be used for sexual selection as an alternative method of arousal.

Humans could also develop more cartilage in their skeletons like sharks, which would have benefits such as being able to give birth more easily, they say he said. As the world gets safer for most of us, there is less need for humans to have rigid and inflexible bones to withstand forceful impacts. While The Mail Online’s suggestions as to what Dr Burnett’s suggestions for features that humans could evolve are just their own musings based on his own musings, new research has found that that humans could one day grow beaks if you misrepresent it slightly.

Sarah Griffiths believes that Dr Fraser, a biologist at Sheffield University, believes that humans will evolve constantly developing teeth thanks to ‘tooth fairy’ cells. The Mail Online reports that he believes that human teeth are no longer fit for purpose and could even change into a beak that beak would not rot, chip or fall out. While nobody believes that this is likely to happen it makes a good headline for enticing people to read the story. This is based on Dr Fraser’s research into the growth and robustness of pufferfish beaks and the possible applications to human teeth. Dr Fraser’s research is particularly well-timed as staff at The Mail Online’s teeth are no longer fit for purpose and they find it difficult to chew. This isn’t true either but could be inferred from the things they say other people say if taken out of context.

Overall this sort of copy is a parody of science journalism and as I have stated has negative effects on the public understanding of science. It is a joke when completed how it’s been completed here. Stopping it is likely to be complex, even it is does boil down to people stopping misleading press releases and journalists being vigilant with regards to the information they include in their stories. Hopefully then we can avoid this sort of copy and paste science journalism and avoid the repetition of inaccurate stories in this sort of copy and paste science journalism.