Anti-ScienceScience

New Video: Have Scientists Debunked the Myth of the Blonde Ditz?

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The actual study

Mary Brock’s breakdown

The bad science at the Telegraph and NY Daily News

The video:

The sort-of transcript:

“Researchers discover that being blond does not make people ditzy,” reads a recent NY Daily News headline. That’s not actually true, but there is evidence to suggest a correlation between lack of intelligence and being a writer for the NY Daily News.

Journalist David Harding goes on to ask, “Is the end of jokes about “blond moments?” I’m not sure, David, IS THE END?

Here’s what actually happened: molecular biologists at Stanford School of Medicine identified a single mutation in the DNA that regulates the KITLG gene that changed the color of the stickleback fish from dark to light.

They found that when they tagged that mutation with a gene that coded for blue fluorescence and inserted it into lab mice, the mice had a fluorescent blue glow only in their hair follicles.

Then, they inserted the human blond hair mutation into the mice, and those mice grew lighter coats and weren’t otherwise affected by the mutation.

It’s cool because it’s a very small, single mutation that only affects the KITLG gene about 20% (as opposed to fully turning it on or off), but it has a very noticeable affect. It’s also cool because that mutation appears to only affect hair color, and not any other trait.

Note that people who have the mutation can still have dark hair, because there are other factors that determine your final hair color.

So how does this one, very specific study about a specific gene mutation, result in a headline like “Researchers discover that being blond does not make people ditzy”? Well, my colleague at Skepchick and talented scientist Mary Brock, noticed that Stanford released a press release that explained the study very well, and then ended with this quotation from the researcher, David Kingsley:

“It’s clear that this hair color change is occurring through a regulatory mechanism that operates only in the hair. This isn’t something that also affects other traits, like intelligence or personality. The change that causes blond hair is, literally, only skin deep.”

So when David Harding went to distill a 1000-word press release into a 150-word “science” article, guess which quote he used and then extrapolated on?

And guess what Sarah Knapton at the Telegraph went with in her article?

And that, my friends, is how your shitty science news gets made.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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6 Comments

  1. They found that when they tagged that mutation with a gene that coded for blue fluorescence and inserted it into lab mice, the mice had a fluorescent blue glow only in their hair follicles.

    Don’t tell this to the Cosplay crowd, they will want the gene. Err… can you do other colors too? lol

        1. It’s a beautiful, stark field of white. I think they’re using all that negative space to make a point about the madness of modern life and the effects of absence in digital spaces…

          Or what you said.

          1. I like your explanation. Though in the off chance that it’s not intended as an artistic commentary… It looks like if a comment starts with a blockquote, that blockquote is actually being rendered to the right of the “post-meta” div tag (which holds the comment’s author, date, and reply button) instead of beneath it. I assume it’s not visible because this places it outside the “comment-text” div’s box, or something similar, and I’m guessing the big white space is due to the blockquoted text wrapping within the very narrow space it has available. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any web stuff, so I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I tried using Firefox’s developer tools to tweak the stylesheets. When I added the “display: inline-block;” property to blockquote in reset.css (line 37), suddenly everything renders properly! I’m not exactly sure why. I’m running Firefox on Linux. (Just in case whoever does Skepchick’s web development is reading…)

  2. So true. So, blondes aren’t ditzy? Are blonde guys still evil, though? (I’m just saying. Bart Simpson, Joffrey, Donald Trump, Jeffrey Dahmer. Evil.)

    Seriously, though, the other problem with bad science journalism is “The controversy!” I remember recently there was a Mexican girl’s skeleton over 10000 years old connected to modern Indians by DNA testing. But Ted Owsley (who has made quite a name for himself claiming that Indians have only been in the Americas for less than 9000 years, and the first people in the Americas were white) said this didn’t prove anything, he could still be right. Naturally the mainstream press included that.

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