Beyoncé and LIGO: Stochastic Awareness of Science Is Probably Okay

Here’s an entertainingly titled post by a physicist Chad Orzel at a blog called Uncertain Principles: Beyoncé and LIGO: Stochastic Awareness of Science Is Probably Okay

This post argues that although most of us know practically nothing about science, this is kind of okay.

Beyoncé is just the most positive example of a general category of people I don’t have any particular reason to care about who I am nonetheless vaguely informed about. I think of this general phenomenon as “stochastic awareness of pop culture.” I don’t have any systematic knowledge of Beyoncé or the various Kardashians, but I know who they are and a bit about them because that information randomly shows up in front of me. Which is more or less inevitable, because there are a lot of people out there who care very deeply about the activities of these individuals, and pump an enormous amount of effort into generating stories about them. And the end result is that even though her music is not my thing, I have a hazy sense of her place in the pop-culture firmament, and a generally positive impression.

Yeah, that basically sums up my awareness of most (really, all) celebrities. I don’t know anything much about any of them, but I have a faint awareness of kind of their place in pop culture, plus a positive or negative impression. Mostly negative, I grant you, because, you know, celebrities.

And hand-wringing blog posts aside, I think science communication could do a lot worse than operating on this same basic model. That is, we generate a lot of content about science that is primarily consumed by people who already care about the subject, in the same way that legions of reporters generate endless stories and thinkpieces about Beyoncé and other celebrities. And some fraction of that content will, from time to time, randomly end up impinging on the awareness of people who aren’t actively seeking information about science, leaving them with the same kind of stochastic awareness of science news that I have about celebrity culture. …

…the work people who write about science (or make videos, etc.) are doing mostly ends up in front of an audience who already care about that subject. In the same way that most of what celebrity-culture reporters write about Beyoncé ends up in front of people who already care deeply about pop music. But I think those posts, and a lot of other writing about this, sort of underplay the effect of the occasions when, for random reasons, science news ends up in front of pop-music fans.

And that’s an interesting argument. It’s probably true that a) we are all mostly ignorant about mostly everything; and b) we all tend to feel that whatever we’re interested in isn’t getting nearly the attention it ought to; and c) we also all tend to feel that Something Ought To Be Done to raise awareness about . . . well, whatever we think is important.

And it’s not that this feeling is wrong; I’m sure practically nothing important ever gets the attention it deserves. But it’s refreshing to run across a post that suggests that perhaps it’s kind of okay (as well as inevitable) to mostly operate on fuzzy impressions about a lot of the stuff that’s going on.

The whole post is worth reading, so click through if you’re at all interested in the way information disseminates through society.

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2 thoughts on “Beyoncé and LIGO: Stochastic Awareness of Science Is Probably Okay”

  1. I agree with this up until the science starts having public policy implications. At that point, it helps to have at least elevator-pitch familiarity of the issues.

  2. Pete, everything has policy implications. Everything. And in general politicians can be counted on to misunderstand every. single. thing. having to do with science. Because virtually all politicians are more interested in soundbites than effective policy, we can generally expect them to do exactly the wrong things with great fanfare, often causing enormous harm.

    Despite that, we are not all going to learn Everything, or even Enough, about climate science, diet as it affects metabolic functioning, ecosystem dynamics, pesticides, drug synthesis, the functioning of the brain (like anyone understands that anyway), genetic engineering, or any kind of physics to make informed decisions. The idea that we may be able to muddle through somehow despite this is reassuring.

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