Monday, October 20, 2008

Playboy models and economic crisis

Is there no depth to which once-respectable newspapers will delve to find titillating stories to entertain their readers? Daniel Finkelstein of The Times reports an alleged correlation between economic prosperity and soft porn - What the economic crisis will do to Playboy models (October 17th 2008). Apparently men prefer taller women during an economic downturn. See also Marginal Revolution. For a contrary view, see Indexed.

Apart from the fact that the correlation is based on such a small sample that its statistical validity is very weak, the analysis assumes that any correlation can be explained in terms of male preferences for different kinds of women. This preference is then explained in terms of evolutionary biology - the so-called Environmental Security Hypothesis. Ha!

Evolutionary biology provides a catch-all kind of explanation for all sorts of nonsense, including sexist nonsense. I'm not saying that all evolutionary biology is suspect, but much of what reaches the lay reader seems to be based on very poor science.

The reason this is a bad explanation for this particular phenomenon is that it is looking at the wrong system. There is a simple economic system based on women taking their clothes off for magazines, and this system is controlled by editors, photographers, models and their agents. The models are not selected by the readers, but by professionals who think they know what the readers want. The selection is primarily driven by economic forces of supply and demand, and there are fairly obvious ways in which the economic environment might affect these forces - for example women who are capable of getting good jobs in good economic conditions may be forced to find less dignified work when times get harder. The idea that the selection of models is based on evolutionary biology seems pretty far-fetched, because there is no obvious mechanism connecting cause and effect.

Now that nicely spoken boys from good schools can't get jobs in the City, some of them may become footballers instead. Some women (and gay men) might find some of these footballers more fanciable, because they know a bit of Ovid as well as the offside rule. No doubt the evolutionary biologists would try to explain this in terms of the Environmental Security Hypothesis as well. Ha!

See also Female Politicians and Electoral Crisis

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