Science distorting science? – Hurlbert & Ling’s study into sex differences in colour preference.

Previously this semester, I produced a blog post criticising the media for distorting science. The media’s ignorance of science and their focus on ideas that sell, regardless of its scientific quality, have caused a great deal of controversy between scientists and journalists.

However, what happens when a research paper, which has been accepted into a scientific journal, is set out in such a way that even us as psychologists can comprehend why journalists may misinterpret it? From this the question arises – can we really blame journalists for jumping on assumptions if the speculations made by the researcher are so specific it seems plausible for those who are naive to assume they are true?

An example of this is an article in the Times Newspaper, named “At last, science discovers why blue is for boys but girls really do prefer pink”, which is based upon the research into the “Biological components of sex differences in colour preference” by Hulbert and Ling (2007).

At first glimpse, it appears the article has misinterpreted the research paper. Apart from Hurlbert and Ling’s (2007) original suggestion that there is a notion that girls prefer pink, the rest of the scientific study suggests that the female preference is ‘reddish’ contrasts. The article’s concentration on the colour pink suggests the journalist has confused the evidence of the original study with its hypothesis. This is a common mistake made my journalists.

The article also suggests that scientists have discovered the reason for this preference. However this is not true. A speculation was made by the researchers that the findings were evolutionary based, however nothing was confirmed. Unfortunately, the journalist has focused on these assumptions, and subsequently used them to create ‘facts’.

Yet can we blame the media for latching on to these speculations? In my opinion, we cannot. It appears that Hurlbert and Ling have purposefully applied biological and evolutionary concepts to their research to grasp the attention of the media. This area of research is very popular amongst society, and the researchers seem to have played upon that.

The title of the research paper is a key example of this. “Biological components” suggests that there is evidence produced in the paper to support the idea that the sex differences here are due to biological factors. Their data conversely does the opposite, with the importance of cultural differences displayed by the results for the Chinese participants. Therefore the title is misleading.

The evolutionary aspect is suggested as an explanation. No other explanations are given, and this speculation is given in such depth that there is no wonder the media portrayed it in their article. The paper suggests that a female’s requirement to discriminate between colours to fulfil their gender roles is what has caused them to have a preference for reddish colours. The idea of the evolution of female trichromacy appears scientific and well thought out. However one cannot help but query, how does a female’s ability to distinguish colours lead to colour preference? The explanation is lengthy, yet unfinished, and completely ignores the idea of cultural differences.

We must also consider that as a hunter, a male also would have to discriminate between the red-brown colours of the fur of an animal and the green grass. Therefore if the use of discrimination is what caused colour preference, wouldn’t males also have a preference to reddish contrasts?

Another questionable aspect of this paper is the use of a line graph to represent the decomposition of individual hue preferences. The graph implies that the entire colour spectrum was measured, therefore suggesting the variables were continuous. However the researchers state that a standard group of eight colours were used. Is the manipulated use of this graph an attempt to make the research appear more scientific than it actually is?

Mean hue preference curve (Hulbert & Ling, 2007)

Although it is evident that The Times Newspaper inaccurately assumed that girls prefer pink from the scientific study, I do not believe we can blame them for their naivety. The scientific study itself is overridden with flaws and assumptions, and provides a minefield for journalists to play upon and misinterpret. In my opinion, it is Hurlbert and Ling, not the Times Newspaper, that has distorted science.

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