Scientist meets media

By Ole Peters, London Mathematical Laboratory

15th November 2017, and I’m at an event I can’t place in a place I can’t pronounce: this is Stream in Ojai, California, helpfully explained to me as an unconference. It’s put together by a company called Wire and Paper Products that has nothing to do with either wire or paper. Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP (which turns out to be media giant rather than a shopping basket producer) has invited some 300 people to discuss all things media, communication, technology.

How I got here

My scientific shtick, my discovery, is that the mathematics of randomness is obsessed with parallel alternatives — things like being 20% dead and 80% alive. This kind of thinking can be troublesome, as it often is in economics but also in other areas. If you’re curious, this year it struck me that I could tweet about it, with links to a blog.

A few months into my twitter experiment, ad man Rory Sutherland, of creative agency Ogilvy, appeared in my feed with exceptionally perceptive observations. We met up for breakfast in London. Rory asked me how I intended to tell my story, which provoked my puzzled response: you’re the ad man here. True, he said. Why don’t you come to California and see how we think. Hence Ojai.

Science as storytelling

Good science is good storytelling. In both realms — science and fiction — the premise has to be self-consistent and reasonably simple, the plot must be free of contradictions. Some twists are allowed but the whole edifice has to function as one. Surprising, then, that a formal education in science involves very little fictional storytelling, little in the way of artistic expression. When we’re sure we won’t be overheard we whisper of elegance and good taste, some form of aesthetic instinct guiding the scientist in his impossible stumble in the dark. But that’s really just rumours.

Just as fairy tales and lullabies, scientific stories are passed down the generations. I mean the real stories — the current ones like relativity and quantum mechanics, and previously others like ether theory and geocentrism. So long as no new insights challenge the existing story, it passes unchanged from professor to student, professor to student. But what if a better story can be told? One that is more elegant, has fewer twists, a cleaner premise? How do we slot into the age-old professor-student chain of communication?

Lectures, journal articles, talks at conferences — they work well to maintain and add to an accepted story. But what if there’s something radically new, something that doesn’t fit the mould? Disruptive communication, but how?

Science communication

Part of being a scientist is sharing whatever nuggets of insight we find. Most of the time we have little to say. We’re busy exploring and distilling. But when we come across something worth sharing we expect the world to stop and listen to us. “Found something! Over here!” Turns out, everyone else is busy too. Even among those in listening mode, there’s the problem of attention. Thousands of people have something to share. How to be heard, ideally without shouting? How to identify and target those who are interested and avoid wasting other people’s time?

Science has made approximately no effort to design a good communication system for itself. We publish results in peer-reviewed journals. That’s because things were printed on paper and placed in libraries during the scientific revolution in the 17th century. We had to vet carefully where to spend our ink, paper, and shelf space. Publishing online — globally accessible, searchable, linkable — costs next to nothing but we’re stuck in our old ways. It gets even better: publishing is the wrong word. Scientific findings are “published” in privately owned journals, safely hiding behind paywalls the insights generated by billions of public dollars.

Communication outside science

Time to look beyond our scientific noses. What else is going on out there? Outside the science bubble, the battle for attention is happening a few orders of magnitude more fiercely. Social media companies invest billions to gain and keep our attention because that’s the product they sell: human attention seconds. You may find that disconcerting, and you’re not alone. The people behind Time well spent worry about it. But it’s what has emerged as the funding model of the current connectivity revolution with benefits and upheavals commensurate with its global scale.

What did I learn in Ojai? I felt rather Jurassic in my approach to communication. Stream experiments with formats, from virtually unplanned discussion sessions made up on the spot, to planned-to-the-second presentations of 15 slides with 15 seconds each. Format affects content — thinking something through can be as helpful as ad-libbing. There was spoken word, some were singing what they had to say, video art was on display. The richness is in the mix.

So let’s experiment with our scientific publishing formats. If it’s something important, what would it be in 140 characters? Can you turn it into a slogan? How would you say it in a 900-word blog post? And yes, of course, do write it all down formally in scientific-journal style. My biggest surprise this year has been twitter. It allows us to tap into the collective intelligence and instantly speak to people we’ve never heard of, sitting on the other side of the planet. Ben Orlin regularly brightens my day with his mathematical cartoons. Especially if we do something fairly esoteric — like re-thinking randomness — social media can be fantastically effective in finding the few souls that share our interests.

Conclusion: it’s worth leaving our professional bubbles on occasion.

Ole Peters is a Fellow at the London Mathematical Laboratory and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He works on different conceptualizations of randomness in the context of economics, publicized through the ergodicityeconomics blog. His thesis is that early mathematical techniques developed in economics in the 17th and 18th centuries are at the heart of many problems besetting the modern theory. Using another view of randomness that focuses on the so-called ergodicity problem, developed largely in the 20th century, he has proposed alternative solutions to many of the classic puzzles.

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