Dancing around the facts

Thanks to This Wicked Day for the tip.

Remember The Office? That show that was popular circa 2002? Today, the newspapers finally have an opportunity to use up the stash of photos of David Brent dancing that they clearly built up during the fat years.

Every news outlet today covers an article which recently appeared on the pre-print servers of Biology Letters: “Male dance moves that catch a woman’s eye“, by a team from University of Northumbria headed by Dr. Nick Neave.

What do they say?

MEN swinging their arms too much is a dance floor turn-off for women, scientists said yesterday.

Windmill movements like David Brent in TV’s The Office are signs of “bad” dancing, a study found. (The Sun)


Running on the spot, windmill arms and spinning may attract ridicule on the dance floor but it will also attract the opposite sex, claim psychologists. (The Telegraph)

Wait a second…

MEN trying to impress women on the dance floor with the slick, cool moves of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever are making a mistake. (The Express)


Ladies prefer smooth movements like John Travolta’s in Saturday Night Fever. (The Sun)

Hold on.

Psychologists have found that over-the-top fancy routines and nifty footwork are not what women want. (The Express)


If you use big body movements and fancy footwork you may look like a show off but subconsciously women will desire you. (The Telegraph)

This is just getting silly.

The study has also been reported on by the BBC, CNN, The Daily Mail, The Economist, The Guardian, The Independent and Sky News, each of whom have their own spin on things. Perhaps it’s all about the right knee. Maybe good dancing is in the left wrist? The torso? Is headbanging attractive or not? Is it a subconscious sign of fitness or a conscious act to attract women?

Looking at the paper won’t answer many of these questions. All coverage of the study ignores the fact that women never, at any point, actually said how attracted they were to the dancers. All they did was watch the videos and then assess the quality of the dance on a 1-7 scale. Is dancing quality really entirely a sexual attribute, something hard-wired into us? Or is it also to do with culture, with artistic taste and any number of other confounding subjective features?

The idea that dance quality is some sort of universal quantity, independent of culture or art, is nicely disproven by The Independent‘s accidental reductio ad absurdum, when it tries to apply the findings to the real world:

But those who lean towards folk dancing of the Riverdance kind face disappointment – Irish dancing, with its focus on leg kicking and a static upper body, is unlikely to set women’s hearts racing.

Remember how unsuccessful and rubbish Riverdance was?

Dr. Neave, who led the study, is a well-known evolutionary psychologist – even a quick Google news search reveals plenty of articles he’s been quoted on in the past, with titles like “Women are safer drivers than men – thanks to estrogen“, “When it comes to the garden, women are better“, “Becoming a father ‘civilises’ men” and “Why blondes prefer gentle men“, not to mention a delightful opinion piece he penned for the Daily Mail titled “Sorry, but women are dependent on men“. Clearly it would fit his general worldview if this study could be twisted to “prove” that women find a certain type of dancing irresistable, and that dancing had some sort of connection to fitness or fertility.

Sure enough, the study ends:

We suggest that human male movements could also form honest signals of traits such as health, fitness, genetic quality and developmental history, though this remains to be confirmed.

The tests for this should be should quite simple, so why weren’t they done? Worse, why do the BBC and the Telegraph claim that they were?

Blood samples taken after the experiment confirmed the theory; the best dancers were also the healthiest. (The Telegraph)

Dr Neave also took blood samples from the volunteers. Early indications from biochemical tests suggest that the men who were better dancers were also more healthy. (BBC)

There were no blood samples mentioned in this paper – there isn’t even a mention of samples being taken for later analysis. It’s entirely possible that they were taken, but why weren’t they discussed in the paper? Why didn’t Dr. Neave wait for the results that would lend a little bit more weight to his study before publishing?* Could he be trying to push this data out without peer review? They certainly don’t say what kind of health they were measuring with these blood tests. Hormones? Iron levels? Oxygenation? Fatty acid concentration?

Likewise, several articles mention findings about men watching other men dancing but, again, the study neglects to mention this. It would have been a good way to ascertain whether dancing was really a good measure of attractiveness – if heterosexual men rated dance moves by similar criteria to heterosexual women** then you’d know that dance quality was primarily a cultural measure, not a sexual one. This obvious experiment never took place – or if it did, the results were not reported – and that fatally undermines the rest of the study.

The only justification for the hypothesis that is ever given is that some animals engage in courtship dances, therefore perhaps humans do too. You’ll need a lot more than that, I’m afraid.

* Not a lot more weight, it must be said. There will be an obvious correlation between fitness and dancing ability – namely, that people who practice dancing often are going to be working out in the process. Since the study specifically measures dance quality, all it would tell us is that there is a connection between being fit and being able to dance reasonably well.

** Specifically using only heterosexual subjects in the study also neatly sidesteps the massive elephant in the evolutionary psychology room – namely that LGB people exist despite all the evolutionary pressure one would think would would oppose same-sex relationships.

Dr Neave also took blood samples from the volunteers. Early indications from biochemical tests suggest that the men who were better dancers were also more healthy.

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  1. #1 by ukenagashi on Wednesday, 8th September 2010 - 13:52 GMT+0100

    Is it actually just me, or do newspapers seem pretty damn useless when it comes to science reporting? I mean, with the other press blogging areas you can generally read a newspaper and raise a critical eyebrow for yourself when they talk about how ___ People Are Breaking Britain Even More Omg We’re Going To Hell, but when it comes to science people really trust newspapers. And even if they don’t, scientific papers are so daunting, and so few people have the training to parse them easily that the instinct is to trust whoever states it in the most easy-to-understand way, or whichever way appeals to “common sense”.

    And this blog has basically proven that stating the facts in a way that’s both easy to understand and ACCURATE isn’t impossible by a long shot. So step up the goddamned game, journalists.

    • #2 by atomicspin on Wednesday, 8th September 2010 - 14:31 GMT+0100

      The trouble is that most of the time if journalists actually read the articles they got passed, they’d realise that there wasn’t really a story there, and they’d need to find something else to pad column inches with. In this case, the only actual story is that there was a correlation between torso movements and dance quality as assessed by a small sample of young British heterosexual women. Literally everything else here is fluff.

      • #3 by ukenagashi on Wednesday, 8th September 2010 - 16:13 GMT+0100

        If they’d asked *my* opinion they’d know that torsos don’t count at all anyway, it’s the Irish dancing rhythmic leg-blurring that gets me going, and therefore all women everywhere feel exactly the same.

        But like… I don’t care if they can’t write some ridiculous piece about how best to dance to win my heart because oh noes it’s stupid.

        I read the newspapers (well, I don’t FOR SOME REASON but whatever) to find out actual news that is actual fact, or at least a well-balanced view on tricky issues that affect the society/world we live in. I don’t read it for fluff or lies or deliberate muddying and dumbing down of stuff. Maybe that puts me in the minority, but if I want ~drama~ and mindless fluff, well, that’s what my mam buys women’s magazines for, innit?

        They can’t be telling me that there ISN’T ENOUGH NEWS IN THE WORLD WITH WHICH TO FILL A NEWSPAPER.

        >: (

        • #4 by atomicspin on Wednesday, 8th September 2010 - 16:37 GMT+0100

          (Note to self: learn Riverdance)

          Oh yeah, I’m certainly not trying to justify what they do. There’s plenty of interesting science news out there, it’s just that most of it doesn’t come pre-packaged in a nice press release with a few controversial quotes.

          But with newspapers cutting journalists so hard at the moment – especially science correspondents – increasingly it’s general interest reporters, with no scientific expertise, who end up writing the articles.

          There’s definitely enough news in the world to fill a newspaper, but not enough to fill one for 20p per day.

          • #5 by ukenagashi on Wednesday, 8th September 2010 - 16:41 GMT+0100

            When you become a flashy scientist you have to combine your science skills with your writing skills and turn this whole thing around ok? It’s just so frustrating. I know *why* it’s ended up like this, I just think it’s wrong and I can’t do anything about it.

            (Dancing like they do in old musical films like Singin’ in the Rain is fine too.)

  1. Brought to heel « Atomic Spin

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