oh we are so gullible!

I heard a blip on TV today about January 17th being the most depressing day of the year.  Hmm, that can’t be good.  How in the world do they figure that out?  So I spent a little while looking up what this could be about.

Supposedly, it’s not January 17th, per se, but the third Monday of January, whenever that turns out. It’s known as Blue Monday.  Here’s what the great Wikipedia says about it:

Blue Monday is a name given to a date stated, as part of a publicity campaign by Sky Travel, to be the most depressing day of the year.

This date was published in a press release under the name of Cliff Arnall, at the time a tutor at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, a Further Education centre attached to Cardiff University.

According to a press release by a mental health charity[3], the formula is:

\frac{[W + (D-d)] \times T^Q}{M \times N_a}

where weather=W, debt=d, time since Christmas=T, time since failing our new year’s resolutions=Q, low motivational levels=M and the feeling of a need to take action=Na. ‘D’ is not defined in the release, nor are units.

Arnall says the date was calculated by using many factors, including: weather conditions, debt level (the difference between debt accumulated and our ability to pay), time since Christmas, time since failing our new year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and feeling of a need to take action.

Of course, it’s not so simple.  It’s pretty much like most of the chain emails that get sent around “for your own good”–use this cell phone number in every place to call for help, use this over the counter product to do this or that–it just boils down to “if it sounds too good to be true, then why in the world would you think it could be?”

But that’s the hook, isn’t it?  We are so willing to believe.  And maybe this is true or not, but if you add in a number, people are more willing to believe something is true.  I read that somewhere recently; I just can’t find it now, but am I making that up or is that true?  Ooh!  I remember where I found it and here it is!

“Specifics are more believable than generalities.” In other words, speak to the left brain – the mind – if you will persuade. “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, novelist, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature

Now, of course, that’s literature for you, by definition anything goes.  But I do think he’s on to something, don’t you?

Oh yeah, it was said this way, too, by someone perhaps more well-known than Garcia Marquez:

All this was inspired by the principle – which is quite true in itself – that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying. These people know only too well how to use falsehood for the basest purposes. From time immemorial, however, the Jews have known better than any others how falsehood and calumny can be exploited. Is not their very existence founded on one great lie, namely, that they are a religious community, where as in reality they are a race? And what a race! One of the greatest thinkers that mankind has produced has branded the Jews for all time with a statement which is profoundly and exactly true. Schopenhauer called the Jew “The Great Master of Lies”. Those who do not realize the truth of that statement, or do not wish to believe it, will never be able to lend a hand in helping Truth to prevail.

On purpose I’m not putting the author’s name here, but you should be able to figure it out.  You better.

But I should return to my research, shouldn’t I?  Well, it turns out that this fellow Cliff Arnall was hired to figure out what day is the happiest day of the year in order to sell ice cream, and while he was at it, he went for the most depressing day, too.  (To sell alcohol?  Uppers?) Anyway, he published his “facts” a few years ago, and the media is happy to trot out these “facts” every year since then.  I don’t know where I’ve been, so it’s newly outrageous to me now.  This fellow does a great job putting it all out on the table in his blog about spotting really bad science, so I’ll just quote a little bit from there.

Anyway, the one positive that can be taken away from these kind of nonsense science articles is that their regular appearence provides ample opportunities to illustrate some quick ways that you can tell something is a REALLY BAD science story. So here’s my checklist:

  1. The story includes a “complex mathematical forumla” to work out something mundane or frivolous like the best way to drink a pint, the happiest day of the year or which celebrity has the best backside.
  2. The story includes 1) and mentions a corporate sponsor. Corporate sponsors aren’t always a sign that a science story is rubbish but when combined with a fanciful equation this seems to be the case about 99.9% of the time.
  3. The story appears in the ‘And finally’ or ‘In other news’ section rather than the ‘science’ section of a news source. Appearing in the science section is no guarantee the story is kosher either but when a science story is in the ‘fluff piece’ category it’s never a good sign.
  4. And most importantly the story features one ‘Dr.’ Cliff Arnall.

Turns out he’s not even a doctor.  Surprise!  It’s like John Grey of the marriage planets stuff.  What we’re willing to believe…

So the fact that my BIL’s birthday happens to be January 17th doesn’t mean that he is doomed to unenjoy the day.  Winter is tough, but we can find reasons to celebrate without despairing, can’t we?

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