How not to do research

Oh, man. What did I just read? It’s on, and it perfectly reflects the twistedly wonky and uneven character of that site — it’s a piece by techbros for techbros titled How San Francisco’s gender disparity affects the attractiveness pairings of couples.

It is truly, deeply, monumentally awful. It’s the work of a dude who knows how to use R, is happy to invent lots of numbers to feed into R, and is himself full up to the brim with unjustified assumptions that he never bothers to question. And apparently he got enough people remarking on how stupid his article was that he had to add a disclaimer:

There seems to have been quite a bit of misunderstanding stirred up by this article, so please read this disclaimer: this analysis makes absolutely no value judgements about how attractive men & women in SF are, or how attractive they should feel. I lay out all the simplifying assumptions and I’ve tried to explain that this is not how the real world works. Nor do I believe this is how the real world works. No sane human should heed any advice from this article. None of this has any basis in reality. It’s not supposed to. This is just a thought experiment about how one might build an economic model for dating with gender ratio imbalances. I’ve preserved the entirety of the original text below. There’s plenty of room for miscommunication because the assumptions are buried inside the text. That’s my fault. But I urge everyone to read the piece in its entirety before jumping to conclusions.

He is dimly aware that “no sane human” would accept any part of his exercise, yet it has a grand total of 4 comments, 2 of which scorn his model, and 2 that praise it…although one does make the point that because it doesn’t adequately confirm his biases, it’s not that good a model. From this, I guess we can conclude that half of the author’s readers on Medium are insane, and I will now go on to make an elaborate statistical justification of my assertion that there is a complex association between insane authors and insane readers on Medium, complete with mathematical formulae and lots of charts and graphs of theoretical “data”…

Wait, no. I’m not going to do that, because it would be stupid and false, and would involve a heck of a lot of work masturbation. Also, thought experiments do have their place, but this kind of extended empirical vacuum offends me in principle.

So what is this wanker trying to do? Here’s the first paragraph.

There’s a joke that I’ve heard passed around the circles of frustrated single men in San Francisco. They claim that this city is home to 49ers — girls that are 4’s but think they’re 9’s in terms of attractiveness. Whether the ineptitude of San Franciscan men or the confidence of San Franciscan women bears responsibility for this sentiment I cannot say, but it did make me curious about whether the numbers might be able to reveal anything.

First off, his entire goal is to evaluate a bad joke built around sexist assumptions by “frustrated single men in San Francisco”. This starting condition might justify some response, but is entirely satisfied by some minimal effort…say, an eyeroll, or a rude non-verbal sound. But no, this prompts the author to build a complex model and test whether the joke is actually true, with a procedure that cannot possibly say anything about accuracy or real effects or even generalities about the population. It’s pure garbage in, garbage out.

Secondly, what is it with bad wanna-be engineers reducing complex phenomena to single small numbers? “Attractiveness” is not an easily quantifiable parameter; it’s going to vary between different people, is entirely a product of perception of a huge number of variables. I might be a 1 or a 2 to most people, but my wife might be willing to judge me as a 4, and maybe in the right light (or complete absence thereof) a 5. So how the heck does he measure this magic number? Right off the bat, we’re dealing with a gigantic assumption that he doesn’t bother to question, and further, that he isn’t going to bother to measure.

He’s going to assume it.

We’ll assume that men and women’s attractivenesses are distributed identically along the classic 0–10 scale. Said another way, their attractivenesses have the same probability density functions. There exists research on the statistical distributions of attractiveness, but they’re all pretty bad. So let’s assume something sensible and simple — that attractiveness follows a normal distribution. But since we want our distribution to have a minimum of 0 and maximum of 10, we need to truncate our distribution. To satisfy that, we can use the truncated normal distribution. Here’s the truncated normal distribution with various standard deviations:

And we’re off, with a long post full of formulae and charts. You don’t need to bother reading it though, since you can actually see the foundation of his argument right there.

  • Assume attractiveness is a single parameter that can be adequately encoded as a single small integer. Further, use a scale that is “classic” because it is used in men’s locker rooms, by cat-callers on the street, and in cheesy popular movies.

  • Dignify it with some sciencey terminology: probability density function.

  • Dismiss any and all genuine research on the subject. I had to highlight that sentence in the middle, because it was so appalling. Everyone else’s work on this subject is pretty bad, but this paper? Sterling quality. Dunning-Krueger, Mr Dunning-Krueger, please come to the white courtesy phone.

  • In the absence of any information he likes, assume a simple statistical distribution…of a parameter that he can’t show is valid in the first place.

  • Then fuck empiricism and observation and measurement, let’s just invent a whole data set for his imaginary parameter, complete with standard deviations. And then go on and on exploring this hypothetical data set with a sample size of 0 with a precision of 4 significant digits.

Really, this rubs me raw. I’ve been grading lab reports lately, and talking with students about their data, and one of the things I try to emphasize with them is making appropriate conclusions. They’re working with a tentative and preliminary data set on cell growth, developed while they were still learning the techniques, and with flaws and errors that they acknowledge in their description, but they also have software that allows them to plug in their data and get a complex formula with absurd degrees of precision that, it says, describes a best fit curve for their observations. Sometimes they’re paralyzed with the difficulty of matching the theoretical equation to the reality of their data, and I have to tell them to step back, simplify, and think about what the data is generally telling them. I also explain that if this were a real experiment, we’d entirely throw out this whole initial set of measurements that were acquired while they were learning how to do them and repeat the whole lab 10 times with more rigor, something not possible with our time constraints.

So you can imagine how this article in Medium smacked me between the eyes with its sexist assumptions, its complete lack of any real measurements (which, given the idiocy of its premises, couldn’t possibly be made anyway), and its ludicrously confident mathematical analyses.

Can I fail the author? Can I kick them out of the class? Can I deny them any kind of degree from any respectable university?

One good thing about it is that now I can read my students’ work and better appreciate that they’re honestly grappling with the data they collected. Suddenly I feel like I should just give them all an A+ and send them out to boot the oblivious pseudoscientists out of their establishment positions (sorry, any students who stumble across this, I’m giving a full range of grades on your lab reports.)


  1. says

    I am totally sure that all those frustrated single men were Idris Elba reincarnate with sparkling personalities who totally deserved a “9”*

    *Multilingual pun: English “9” is pronounced the exact same way as German “nein”: NO

  2. Athywren - Frustration Familiarity Panda says

    I always like the idea that attractiveness is a single numerical scale. Well, by ‘like,’ I should probably clarify that I mean, ‘am incapacitatingly amused by.’ It’s not like whether you find someone attractive is the end result of the intersection of a breathtakingly large number of variables – many of which are not even physical, and most of which are different from person to person – or anything like that. Of course not. That would be weird.
    I never used to believe that ‘scientism’ was a thing, but these people who think they can quantify attractiveness on some objective scale; who seem to think that anything and everything can be measured by scientific means, no matter how nebulous, subjective or personal it may be… I’ve come to believe in it over the last few years.

  3. Zeppelin says

    Ooh, I want to do Engineer Sociology too

    Okay, so
    Poor people are, on average, going to be less physically attractive than wealthy people — they receive poorer healthcare and nutrition, so they will be on average shorter, have less symmetrical faces and poorer skin, can’t afford to compensate for physical defects with cosmetics or cosmetic surgery, etc.

    There are many more poor people than rich people.

    Thusly, I have Sensibly and Simply demonstrated that Attractiveness does not follow a symmetrical normal distribution.


    For my follow-up paper I shall pull some figures out of my ass on how the fact that pyhsical attractiveness helps you get wealthy affects the overall distribution of uglies in different income brackets.

    Hey, that was easy

  4. nomadiq says

    Give someone a hammer and everything looks like a nail. Give someone a univariate normal distribution and software without an appreciation for their limitations, and you get this piece of trash. My hope is this will be a learning experience for the author. This criticism will make him seriously question his assumptions and thus his ‘results’. The higher hope is that this misapplication of statistical procedures will make him question why he made the assumptions he did in the first place. And in the future ask better questions.

  5. says

    Once again, attractive is being conflated with physical beauty. Not the same thing at all. At least, not from where I’m sitting. Some people who are stunningly beautiful (or handsome, if you insist) aren’t in the least bit attractive, not when you get close up and they open their mouth. How attractive a person happens to be is based more on personality, on intelligence, wit, humour, etc.

  6. Onamission5 says

    4’s who think they’re 9’s, eh? Well. Can’t have women thinking they have value outside of whether or not they give the author and his associates a boner, now can we. No more of that pesky confidence or self assuredness for you ladies. Know your number, know your place.

    /sarc, in case that wasn’t obvious

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Those SF men have pretty high standards if they think all SF girls are 4 who think they’re 9. As a Bostonian visiting SF I was always gobsmacked at the overwhelming population of 9’s in SF as opposed to 4’s at home.

    But then again I always get it backwards. like the infamous California Girls song. I always hear it as him wanting all these other kinds of girls to be in California, rather than the conventional interp of him wanting girls from California to be everywhere.
    So far, the synopsis presented in the OP sounds like an interesting premise for a paper of personal reactions to the actual distribution of people he would rank 0-10. To present it as some kind of universal is misguided. That is, as long as the paper starts out with, “Lets assume the population of beauty follows a normal distribution, and see if the compiled results of survey from N people (randomly selected) matches or deviates from that, and see if we can postulate why.(from additional data in those surveys, such as demography of surveyed, etc)”

  8. mykroft says

    Reminds me of the elaborate logical constructs that the more intelligent deists use to justify their beliefs.

    Same game, different tools. Build a mental Jenga tower, using your selected preconceptions, factoids and (if necessary) real world knowledge. Build it tall, with sciency terms to impress the illiterati. Then act surprised and offended when someone pulls out a block of stupidity and the tower crashes down.

  9. Becca Stareyes says

    As always, Terry Pratchett has an appropriate quote:

    “And Nanny Ogg was an attractive lady, which is not the same as being beautiful.” (From Lords and Ladies)

    The character in question is an wrinkly grandmother witch who has one remaining tooth… and is likely to be at the center of the party having the time of her life eating, drinking, singing and telling dirty jokes. (And the quote comes from the Discworld’s self-described second-greatest lover, who has met plenty of ingenues and fine ladies. The two have a fun evening as all of his romantic plans for wooing go out the window because Nanny neither knows nor cares about high society courtship. Then elves invade.)

    But it occurs to me that if you value beauty first, it’s a lot harder to measure ‘attractiveness’, because you’re screening out so many people. If you only want a one-night stand, you don’t need to think about if someone is the kind of person you’d want to spend a lot of time with. (And if you want more than that, you better think about ‘am I having fun with this person’ a bit more than ‘is this the most beautiful person in the room’.)

    (Also, who cares if they are a ‘9’ to strangers? Most of the people whose opinions I care about wouldn’t try to use a single numerical scale to describe me. Hell, even faculty hiring committees have multiple scales that they have to combine to get their lists: and there I want my number to be #1 (as in first on the list). So I might be a ‘4’, but I don’t think I’m a ‘9’, because I am not a number, I am a human being.)

  10. says

    I actually like mathematical thought experiments. But some of the assumptions here are ridiculous. For instance, why is attractiveness distributed normally on the 1-10 scale? Surely it would be better to assign 1-10 based on deciles. That would have been so much simpler, resulting in nice straight lines, obviating the need for R.

    Also, the market metaphor doesn’t really seem apt for human attractiveness, since that’s not ordered. Maybe we should replace it with something a little less ridiculous, like, um, hot dogs and hot dog buns. As you know, hot dogs come in packs of 10 and hot dog buns in packs of 8, but we’re supposed to pair them up. So let’s assume that they’re ordered in tastiness, and the tastiest hot dogs go with the tastiest hot dog buns, and also assume that hot dogs and hot dog buns can be divided infinitely… anyway, the result is that 20.000% of the hot dogs are forever alone. Yes, I’m quite sure this is the least ridiculous metaphor possible.

  11. jack lecou says

    The stupidest part might be the fact that AFAICT this just boils down to the idea that individuals of one gender (women, say) can probably afford to be a little choosier (on whichever dimensions they please) — and the other perhaps a little less so — if there happen to be a few more men than women in a group playing a mandatory heterosexual pair-up game.

    Which strikes me as a fairly banal observation. One that can be made — if one really insists on making it at all — without firing up R, inventing data, picking arbitrary standard deviations because they “look right”, or referencing bro-tastically scientifical “attractiveness” scores (or, indeed, physical appearance in any way).

    I guess you probably couldn’t make much of a Medium article out of it though.

  12. jack lecou says

    I take that back. That’s not the stupidest part.

    Leaving aside all the other stupidity, let us assume we’re dumb enough to assume there’s some validity to the single digit attractiveness scale thing.

    That means that, besides some population figures, the one piece of data he’s got is the anecdotal observations that there are a lot of “4s” paired with “9s” and so forth. (Granted, that’s not exactly hard data, but if you’re going to assume there’s anything to the “score” system, you have to assume people are capable of observing and assigning scores halfway accurately.)

    And yet the entire analysis basically consists of “make up some arbitrary numbers and reach the conclusion that 4s are actually paired with 4.8s” contradicting the one piece of observational data you actually started with.

    It seems like the “right” way to do this would have been to start with the “4-9” observations, and work backwards to see if there were any combinations of model assumptions and plausible base distributions consistent with those observations. If not, then conclude that the model itself is inconsistent (i.e., very probably, that the whole numerical score situation is incoherent).

  13. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    hasn’t 13’s been done? as in survey N random people, ask each to rate their own attractiveness on scale of 1-10, show them 10 photos of various people, ask them to rate each photo on same scale..
    Exp A: 1st question = self evaluation, then rank photos
    Exp B: same survey, same photos, self evaluation as last question,

    I suspect a form of Dunning-Kruger

  14. mykroft says

    It is luck. It seems more and more each day I rediscover how lucky I was, and still am.

  15. jack lecou says

    I know plenty of conventionally attractive people of all genders who are single and lots of conventionally not attractive people who are not. You know, sometimes it’S just luck


    It’s also not the case that anyone ever gets to use the entire population of a large city as a dating pool: “Looks like it’s my turn. Let’s see. I’m the 25,000th most attractive 20-27 year old in San Francisco, and it appears the top 24,000 most attractive mates are already paired up. Hello, #24,001, I am the objectively most attractive mate choice remaining to you in all of San Francisco. Would you like to pair up? Of course you would.”

    Nope. Nope. Nope.

    I think the way most people typically find each other is still from within one of much smaller pools of people they have regular contact with — fellow students, coworkers, extended friend circles, etc. And people don’t take turns in order of universal objective attractiveness. Who they pick and when they pick them are all based on very idiosyncratic criteria, often specific to the situation, time and place.

    Even online dating doesn’t change that much. The entire single population of SF might, in principle, be on the Datr app or whatever, but you can only swipe and/or arrange dates with a finite number.

    I don’t know what that does to the mathematical modeling, but I doubt that combining all those messy individual little pools gives you one big neat normal distribution. At the very least, I would think it would tend to smear the variance out something fierce.

  16. freemage says

    Given the number of guys over the years that I’ve encountered who have some specific trait that they look for (hair/eye color, skin tone, ethnicity, body type) before they will even consider the issue of asking a woman out, the notion that there’s a single universal scale from one to ten is just stupid. (And this is just considering the single issue of physical beauty; as noted, once you get two people to agree on a third person’s beauty score, the issue of ‘attractiveness’ is still up in the air for all sorts of other reasons that relate to compatibility and personal preferences.)

  17. rinn says

    ” This is just a thought experiment about how one might build an economic model for dating…”

    Tragically, he is right. A lot of economics is about creating models with reality simply assumed away. The “attractiveness scale” is very analogous to the economic concept of “utility”. Utility is a single number that tells you how happy an agent is about eating ice-cream, winning a lottery, living in a clean environment, etc. Even highly complex economic models rest on the assumption that there is a function that takes events in your life as arguments and spits out your corresponding level of utility. Granted, those functions might be specialised for particular economic problems and might have some intuitive appeal, but they are largely concocted for mathematical convenience.

  18. says

    I am not going to read the original article, I need my brain cells alive and fit. So I will only highlight one thing that hit me in the eye (content warning – mathturbation [love that word, I laughed myself under the table]):

    If any given trait (in this case generall atractiveness) is the result of a combination of multiple other traits (like physique, intelligence etc.) and this overall vague result is then measured on a scale with fixed upper and lower bound (i.e. 0 to 10) assuming normal distribution for that trait is definitively false.

    Normal distribution does indeed arise due to combination (usually summation and/or averaging) of a lot of factors that influence both our measurements and measured values (see central limit theorem), but it is not the only possible distribution arising from systems of multiple interacting variables – and it does not have upper and lower bound. Exact normal distribution is in fact nonexistent, because it goes in to infinite in both directions. It is only used as a usefull general shorthand for real life distributions that are similar to it.

    Traits that arise due to multiplicating of variables have only lower bound (usually zero – for example body weight) but theoretically no upper bound, and for those is usual lognormal distribution.

    However for traits that have both upper and lower bound (for example break force of a chain or of a set of chains) arises Weibull distribution. Weibull can be very similar to normal, but it can also be heavily skewed towards either bound.

    Assuming Weibull distribution would be in fact usable in this case, but it is not possible to assume its shape without data.

    Where did this idiotic idea of rating “atractiveness” come from? Even if one would design a measurement method for asscertaining it, it is more than clear from the history that the perception of beauty (and therefore only by proxy of atractiveness, which of course influenced through other things goo) is not only heavily subjective from the point of every individual, but also extremely strongly dependent on culture. The hell, it is enough to look at the history of Playboy centerfolds – there are definitive trends and shifts over time and a big variety of body shapes.

  19. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    But how do they know women “think they are 9s”?

    Because all the dudebros think they’re above average, and that no woman with an equal or less attractiveness rating has the right to say no to sex with them… No woman with an equal or less attractive ness rating and a sane mind would want to say no to sex with them!

    …and yet women in SF say no to sex with them! In SanFran – the land of the sexual libertines!

    How can this be? He is the Dudebro SexistAss!

  20. unclefrogy says

    This whole article I wont call it a study because it is in no way could I think it is a study, This article sprang out of a bad joke as he admits.
    he even had to present a disclaimer in which he said

    I’ve tried to explain that this is not how the real world works. Nor do I believe this is how the real world works. No sane human should heed any advice from this article. None of this has any basis in reality. It’s not supposed to.

    so what is it supposed to be then? Is it not then one of the stupidest things that exist an attempted rational explanation of a joke? If the joke is funny no explanation is needed if it is not why bother? In this case the joke ain’t funny though in context the joke teller might be a laughable clown.
    uncle frogy

  21. Blattafrax says

    Assume a spherical woman and a spherical man placed on a frictionless surface…

    Sorry, where were we?

  22. says

    Who was that Victorian scientist who made a little pocket gadget that he used to rate the attractiveness of women all over the British Isles, and found that the women in his home city (London, maybe?) were on average more attractive than women elsewhere? The further he got from London, the less attractive they were, with women in Edinburgh being the least attractive population of all. His scale was only one to three, as I recall, but his study yielded such impressive results.[/sarcasm]

  23. doublereed says

    Isn’t that disclaimer basically saying “I don’t really know why medium let me publish this to be honest.” Like it almost sounds like he was trying to see what he could get away with in terms of the silliness and stupidity of an article.

    @19 freemage

    I’ve also met a number of women that do this as well, particularly with height. I’ve never really understood these kinds of physical restrictions myself.

    From what I understand, the most important factor of whether two humans are attracted to each other is if they can actually meet each other.

  24. lotharloo says

    My first guess is that he’s some sort of Mathematician/Computer Scientist guy and I can actually relate to whatever he’s doing. When you do “theory”, you can easily make assumptions as you go along. Ignoring the sexist undertones, what he is doing is not fundamentally different from answering questions such as “Assume bacterias in a bottle of nutrients reproduce every minute. If you start with one bacteria, how many will you have after one hour?” to which the answer is “2^60 or roughly 10^18” which is a clearly absurd answer. Or the article that was published on IFuckingLoveScience that “if you fold a paper 103 times it will be thicker than the observable universe.”

    The math in all of these scenarios is correct. The problem appears when theoreticians/Mathematician take themselves too seriously or due to their lack of education in empirical fields don’t show enough appreciation for observations, objectivity, and all the other safety mechanisms that need to be built into empirical fields to stop us from fooling ourselves. I had a religious Mathematician friend who once asked me “Why not God could be like a field extension? Field extension of a field F behaves exactly like F inside F but it has so many elements and structure outside F!” She’s smart and a very good Mathematician but she’s didn’t have the level of appreciation for evidence because as part of her job, she could easily define things into existence as long as the Mathematical axioms held.

  25. Jake Harban says

    Every time I try rating attractiveness on a scale of 0-10, I get the result: NaN.

    I’ve been to San Francisco and everyone I saw there was NaN same as anywhere else.

    It turns out that because I’m asexual and my aesthetic preferences exclude humans, there is no physical definition of “attractive” that humans possess which has any meaning to me.

    There exists research on the statistical distributions of attractiveness, but they’re all pretty bad. So let’s assume something sensible and simple — that everyone shares my exact preference set. Thus we can conclude that “attractive” is not an adjective that can be meaningfully applied to humans and the conclusions of the original paper are falsified.

  26. Pierce R. Butler says

    … absolutely no value judgements about how attractive men & women in SF…

    ♬… You’re only as pretty as you feel ♪ ♫
    As pretty as you feel inside ♫♪ ♩…

    — Some San Francisco band nobody’s even thought about for decades

  27. says

    Not only is beauty/attractiveness/whatever you want to call it subjective between people, it often is subjective and variable for a single individual you’re looking at. I was looking at a clothing site the other night, and many of the outfits were worn by the same model. They were all presumably taken by the same photographer and taken in the same session, or close together sessions. The make up artist was probably the same, and her hairstyle didn’t really change. Yet in some of the groups of photos I found her face attractive, while in others not so much. So those guys babbling about 49ers might see a woman that on one day they think is a four, and on some other day they’d think she was a six, or an eight, or whatever, and she’s done nothing to alter her “attractiveness.”

  28. steventang says

    Interesting analysis of my blog post Prof Myers. I think you bring up some good points and also some not so good points about the post. I’ll try to address a few of them here.

    Just to get it out of the way — I added a disclaimer because there’s been a bit of reactionary misunderstanding of the article I wrote (see and I’ve had personal discussions with the authors of both posts and I’m happy to have one with you too.

    Not everyone who plays with numbers is doing a study. This is clearly not a study and I’m not sure what part of the post made you think it was. We can play with numbers for fun sometimes without having a goal to discover something new about the world. My analysis was just a fun personal exercise for me. Nowhere do I claim that I’m making any discoveries in sociology. I’m flattered that you even had the idea that this was supposed to be research.

    This analysis isn’t a value judgement about how attractive men and women in SF are or how attractive they should feel. I’m not trying to use real datasets or make any claims about how attractiveness is distributed. This is a theoretical thought experiment in economic modeling. I’m absolutely not saying that people actually do or should behave like this. This model vastly oversimplifies the world. This is clearly not how the real world works. Of course people can’t be perfectly rated along a normal distribution. Of course everyone’s notion of attractiveness is subjective. Of course looks aren’t the only things that matter. Of course not everyone in SF is straight. It has no basis in reality and it’s not supposed to. It’s merely a thought experiment that hinges on indefensible “ifs”.

    So what is this? This is a simple statistical model to understand how matching behavior works with disparate normally distributed populations. The real-world tie-in I chose here was heterosexual dating. I could have replaced “men and women” with “fartmakers and fartsniffers” or “hands and penises” and the number would’ve been the same. Again, the important point here is — I never claimed to make any statements about the real world! This was a mathematical exercise.

    Does the Robinson Crusoe economic model have any basis in reality? No, but such a vastly oversimplified model produces interesting theoretical results and I don’t think universities should be blasted for teaching it. Does Conway’s game of life fit real datasets about cellular evolution on Earth? No, but it’s still a very useful thought experiment.

    Consider another thought experiment – what would happen if every man and woman in SF decided that they would only date partners who are over 8’5″ tall? The math is easy on this one. Everyone would remain single. My analysis hinges on equally silly assumptions, but is a thought experiment just the same.

    I can understand why the post may come off as sexist. I should’ve worded certain parts better. The topic is a sensitive one, especially for folks in SF and the tech community (read the two articles I linked above). The starting point of the analysis, the notion that there exists the term “49ers”, isn’t something I ever agree with. It’s something I mock and reject by the end of the post. But I think that most of these concerns go away once we realize that this is just a model and not meant to be prescriptive. Can I ask exactly which assumptions you found to be sexist?

  29. Rich Woods says

    It has no basis in reality and it’s not supposed to. It’s merely a thought experiment that hinges on indefensible “ifs”.

    So what value does it have, other than eing your own personal entertainment? If it has no basis in reality and its assumptions are indefensible, aren’t we all just better off by skipping it and going down to the nearest duck pond to listen to the occupants quack? It certainly doesn’t have any value as an economic model, as you first claimed.

  30. says


    The larger context is that you’re taking assumptions that are very similar to ones held by pick-up artists. Look up “sexual market value” or “sexual economics” to get an idea of what I mean. (Obligatory plug: I once blogged about it.)

    I don’t have a problem with the fact that you’re doing a mathematical thought experiment for shits and giggles. And I did read the article, so I know that you actually rejected the idea that “49ers” are common. But the assumptions that went into the model! Attractiveness is well-defined, and even ordered? People pair up by attractiveness? Apparently starting from the top and going down? Why are you being so generous to the idea of the sexual marketplace? I think you should have gone with a different real-world tie-in.

  31. says

    Incidentally, I think many people are being unfair to I see Medium as basically being like Blogspot, except that they pay a few people to write for them. But I figure most of its authors are not paid, and are just as much nobodies as I am. When they write stuff, they generally don’t expect it to blow anyone’s mind, or even get read by a significant number of people.

    And hey, I used to have a blogspot blog, and I did lots of mathematical thought experiments that hardly anyone read. I once did a thought experiment on welfare, and I don’t remember what I actually concluded from my simulation, but what I do remember is that it motivated me to look into welfare programs in the US. That research convinced me that we don’t give nearly enough money to welfare.

  32. unclefrogy says

    steve if you want to make fun of a bad joke and an equally bad attitude by explaining them into absurdity then you have to work harder on making it funnier.
    You might try studying Steven Colbert Will Rogers and Mark Twain. your numbers being completely made up show us nothing worth seeing in a way that is overly complicated
    try following this example

    uncle frogy

  33. magistramarla says

    I agree with Slithey Tove @8.
    We lived on the California coast for a while. I was always struck with the athleticism of many Californians (as opposed to Texans).
    All we had to do was sit on the pier at Santa Cruz. We could watch many lovely young ladies and handsome young men playing volleyball in one direction and could watch many athletic young people surfing in the other direction.
    San Francisco was also full of beautiful and interesting people. It depends upon one’s definition of beautiful.

  34. steventang says

    @Rich Woods – it has no value beyond my personal entertainment, nor do I claim it does. This was a piece published on my personal blog that I usually share with just a few friends. You can choose to go quacking or you can read about a theoretical model. Whatever tickles your fancy at the moment.

    @Siggy – I agree that some of the implications of the model come off as unsavory – the idea that attractiveness is definable or measurable. I’m not familiar with the assumptions of pick-up artists, but I presume they actually try to affect their behavior in accordance to their beliefs whereas I’m clear that this is a mathematical exercise applied to a real-world example. Of course attractiveness doesn’t follow a perfect normal distribution and isn’t perfectly objective. But to say that there exists no order at all, and that attractiveness isn’t something people consider when pairing up is equally absurd and overly PC. When dating, people have preferences and will match up according to those preferences. Is the stable marriage problem ( also too generous to the idea of a sexual marketplace? About Medium – I completely agree with you. I dislike most of the popular content on Medium but it’s just a blogging platform where it’s easy for me to publish my writing. When there’s nothing else to criticize, might as well go after the choice of platform.

    @unclefrogy – it’s not supposed to be absurdist comedy. Many seem to have thought my piece is supposed to have a political or social agenda. It has none. My next analysis will come with trigger warnings saying “this piece isn’t funny enough to explain a bad joke to absurdity, but also doesn’t side with the political implications of said joke”.

  35. lotharloo says

    Is the stable marriage problem ( also too generous to the idea of a sexual marketplace?

    What does this even mean? The stable marriage problem is an abstract problem stated in a humorous setting and nobody takes it that seriously. Or do you think that “Hairy ball problem” ( ) talks about hairs or balls? Or that “Ham Sandwich theorem” ( ) is a theorem about sandwiches?

  36. Anri says

    steventang @ 39:

    it has no value beyond my personal entertainment, nor do I claim it does. This was a piece published on my personal blog that I usually share with just a few friends. You can choose to go quacking or you can read about a theoretical model. Whatever tickles your fancy at the moment.

    Ah, the “But I was only joshin’ – jeez! Lighten up! You’re just looking to be offended!” defense.
    I can say with complete certainty that we have never had anyone ever use that one before.

    Note: the above post was processed at a facility that also handles bulk sarcasm.

  37. Athywren - Frustration Familiarity Panda says

    @steventang, 39

    But to say that there exists no order at all, and that attractiveness isn’t something people consider when pairing up is equally absurd and overly PC.

    Has anybody here claimed either of those things? I have read every comment in this thread previously, but not this morning, so maybe I’m missing where somebody did make one or both of those claims. I have to admit, in the absence of seeing those claims being made – although, again, I admit I may have just missed them – it seems an awful lot like a strawman thrown up to disguise the apparent belief that it’s questioning your assumptions which is overly PC.

  38. dianne says

    Multilingual pun: English “9” is pronounced the exact same way as German “nein”: NO

    He thinks he’s a nine but really he’s a nein. Wirklich, er ist ein “nie ins Leben, der Gedanke ist ekelheftig!” but who’s counting?

  39. jack lecou says

    Of course attractiveness doesn’t follow a perfect normal distribution and isn’t perfectly objective. But to say that there exists no order at all, and that attractiveness isn’t something people consider when pairing up is equally absurd and overly PC.

    [Physical] attractiveness certainly is a factor in people’s pairing up processes, yes. Especially initially. No one here has suggested otherwise.

    But it probably isn’t overstating things too much to say there is no order, or at least that such “order” as exists in this area is not especially well-behaved, mathematically speaking. Attractiveness is certainly not universal or objective, and probably not even consistent on an individual basis. For example, imagine an experiment where you ask a subject to rank a pile of photos, one pair at a time. Do you think you could even count on transitivity? I don’t. And you’d of course get different answers from me if we repeat the experiment a month later, or did it in a different sequence.

    This is probably one of the absolute last areas where you could expect “rational” behavior in the economic sense. There is going to be a list of cognitive biases as long as this thread in play.

    And then there’s the fact that actual pairing up decisions don’t really involve comparisons (at least explicit ones) at all, let alone rankings. The thought process (such as it is) is almost never, “OK. Let me look around the party and objectively evaluate who is the most attractive person here, and then select them for mating,” it’s often more like, “Wow, Greg is so funny tonight. And why have I never noticed before how hot he is? Hmm…”

    That is really just not a process conducive to mathematical or economic modeling. Not remotely simple approaches, anyway.

  40. imnotandrei says

    @27 If I recall correctly, that was Sir Francis Galton, who tried to mathematize lots of different things.

  41. John Horstman says

    @Charly #21:

    Where did this idiotic idea of rating “atractiveness” come from?

    I totally know this one! It comes from the American eugenics movement. Farmers had been successfully applying selective breeding to their crops and livestock for centuries, and with the recognition that humans were just another animal, it was thought that the same techniques could be applied to human populations on the basis of “fitness” (ratings of various traits determined by the eugenicist). The USA still had large swaths of rural area dominated by agrarian population groups, and these communities would typically hold county and state fairs to show off their various farming skills, including care and breeding of livestock. So, they integrated human eugenics pageants, called “fitter family contests”. This also led to dating/matchmaking services in cities that would collect your anthropometric and psychometric data and match you with eugenically appropriate mates – a version of this system is still in use today on most dating sites in the form of percentile compatibility profiling. The “fitness” ratings were actually based on many different anthropometrics (and psychometrics in the more complex implementations), but this did apply an abstracted metric to human “fitness”, which morphed to “attractiveness” when the culture shifted from viewing mate selection as more of a social, community concern (in which people other than those getting married might have significant input) to an individual matter of preference. I’m not sure if 10-point scales were a common averaged value that was actually applied in the beginning, but the idea of matching people with appropriate partners based on metrics applied to physical characteristics is very much a result of the eugenics fad, and any number of beauty pageants (including the most famous), which are the legacy of those original fitter family contests, definitely used a 1 to 10 beauty scale. The Nazis get all the press, of course, but there was a lot more to eugenics than them, and many of the ideas and practices are still with us today, usually in somewhat in altered forms.

  42. Amphiox says

    If I recall correctly, one of the first steps required before using a subjective linear scale to measure anything, (an example being the various Visual Analog Pain Scales) is a thorough assessment of inter-observer reliability. That crucial step seems to have been glossed over.

    Can I ask exactly which assumptions you found to be sexist?

    The idea that doing something like this is ok if it is just “for fun” is pretty sexist….

  43. Amphiox says

    But to say that there exists no order at all, and that attractiveness isn’t something people consider when pairing up is equally absurd and overly PC.

    No one here actually said that, though.

  44. Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy says

    The problem with the “thought experiment” is that it assumes that the ordering is fixed, and everyone’s ordering is the same. In the real world, different people have different preferences, and I don’t actually care whether you think my girlfriend is more attractive than yours. What I care about is that she wants to be my girlfriend.

    The people who use the stable marriage model to assign trainee doctors to hospitals make it work by taking a snapshot in time: if someone puts MGH above Montefiore on their list, that will be used for matching even if they change their mind the next day. The application also requires arbitrarily giving one group first choice: in the case of medical residencies, the hospitals get their pick of doctors, not the other way around.

    Also, at least as relevant to the “thought experiment” here, that model assumes that there are exactly two groups, A and B, and nobody can be matched with someone in their own group. That’s true of medical residencies. Does anyone really think it’s true of dating in San Francisco?