In April 2008, I wrote that British journalists interpret “freedom of the press” to mean that they can make up anything they want and publish it as fact in British newspapers. Now another evolutionary psychologist has learned the lesson the hard way.
In the earlier post, I explain that, by the American standards, all British newspapers are tabloids because they don’t distinguish between what is true and what they make up. I knew this from my own experiences of dealing with British journalists, but, as it turns out, even the British government admits, in an official government publication, that British newspapers make things up and report them as facts.
Most British people consider the Times of London to be the most respectable “broadsheet” newspaper (as opposed to “tabloid” newspapers) in the UK, despite the fact that the Times, along with most British “broadsheet” newspapers, is now published in the tabloid size to make it easier for people to read it in crowded London subways. Last week, the Sunday Times published an article with the headline “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses.” The article reported that “Researchers claim that blondes are more likely to display a “warlike” streak because they attract more attention than other women and are used to getting their own way – the so-called “princess effect.”” The Times article quotes the evolutionary psychologist at the University of California – Santa Barbara, Aaron Sell, and his findings are purportedly published in his article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, written with the two Deans of Modern Evolutionary Psychology, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.
As it turns out, however, none of this is true, as Sell explains in his angry letter to the Times. He and his coauthors do not mention blondes at all in their paper and they don’t even have hair color in their data. The supplementary analyses that Sell performed after the publication of the paper, as a personal favor to the Times reporter, show the exact opposite of what the Times article claims. After he presumably listened to Sell explain all of this on the phone, the Times reporter nonetheless made up the whole thing, and attributed it to Sell.
This is eerily reminiscent of my own experience with a British journalist. He interviewed me in 2006 about one of my articles, which demonstrates, among other things, that the average intelligence of a population is positively correlated with the health of the population everywhere in the world, except in Africa. The headline of the article he wrote? “Low IQs are Africa’s curse, says lecturer.”
When I first heard about the so-called “warrior princess” finding, it did not make any sense to me. Unlike Sell, I am interested in the effect of hair colors on personality and other individual differences, and I have studied such effects of hair colors in the past (although it is very difficult to get data on hair colors because everybody unquestioningly assumes that they are not important so nobody collects data on them). The claim that blondes are more “warlike” is not at all consistent with what I know about what blondes are like compared to women of other hair colors. So, not only do British journalists make things up, but what they make up doesn’t even make sense.
I hope American and British readers (and readers throughout the world) will finally wake up to the reality of British journalism: You just cannot believe what you read in British newspapers. I’d further call on my academic colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic never to speak to British reporters. You have absolutely no control over what they say about you and your scientific research.
Unfortunately, however, this does not always work. A reporter from the Sunday Times has recently requested an interview with me about one of my papers. Having already learned my lesson in 2006, I completely ignored his email and telephone messages. As a result, no interview took place. But that did not stop him at all. He went ahead and wrote his article, pretending that he had interviewed me and quoting me at length. Something similar has happened to me with another British newspaper. At another time, a reporter from yet another British newspaper attempted to blackmail me and LSE into giving an interview with him.
Sell did make one mistake, however. Unfamiliar with British newspapers, he assumed, in writing a letter of protest to the Times, that British journalists are as decent and conscientious as American journalists, and therefore that, once the errors in their reporting are pointed out to them, they would be ashamed and be quick to issue a correction or retraction. In his letter, Sell writes: “Journalistic ethics requires, at a minimum, that you remove from this article all references to me, and to the research I and my collaborators have conducted.” Sell wrongly assumes that British reporters have journalistic ethics. He writes: “I trust that the Times is committed to being accurate.” Wrong again!
Sell does not realize that it is their job as British journalists to make things up. They don’t care if it’s true or not. It’s like telling reporters from the National Enquirer “No, there are actually no medical records to show that Britney Spears gave birth to a three-headed cow-baby fathered by the ghost of Michael Jackson. That would be biologically impossible, for a couple of reasons.” They simply don’t care; it’s their job to make things up.
Update (31 January 2010): Daniel Finkelstein, Executive Editor of the Times of London, informs me that the Times and the Sunday Times are completely different newspapers, with entirely separate teams of staff and editorial policies, which I had not known. It occurs to me that all of my recent personal experiences, as well as Sell’s, have been limited to the Sunday Times. The Times has not written about my work since July 2003, shortly before my arrival in the UK. I therefore do not want to malign the Times unjustifiably.