Thursday, July 2, 2009

Social Aspects of Science: The King of Pop

Sometimes I can’t help myself. I get fascinated by things that fascinate people. I try to understand what motivates people to be absolutely single-minded about something. And before I get too far ahead of myself, yes I know, I’m guilty of this myself with mathematics and physics, but we all think our favored use of brain cycles is singular above all others don’t we? So recent events provided the perfect stage for exacting some sense out of what drove folks into public displays of anguish and woe in reaction to the death of Michael Jackson.

Yielding to my sense of curiosity along these lines, I headed over to witness things for myself. Weathering 91 degree heat, I drove over to the Jackson Family compound located at 4641 Hayvenhurst Ave., Encino, Calif. (I’m not revealing any closely guarded secrets here as I easily got the address using Google). I found the narrow residential street lined with enormous mobile news centers each with a satellite dish towering above the tree line. Each had a news anchor and/or field reporter trying hard to look professional in front of the camera with the sweltering heat. There were also the crowds to be discussed shortly, and really the purpose of this post.

But what elements of science could I glean from this experience? When in doubt, I always lean towards my academic background in data mining, machine learning, knowledge discovery in databases (KDD), and statistical inference. This confluence of disciplines serves the need to establish hidden meaning behind data. As a result I tend to collect data wherever I go and try to understand it. Here’s what I found. I determined that the crowd of hundreds of mourners present on this day followed a normal distribution when looking at a number of distinct attributes – age, race, gender, nationality, education, socio-economic background and likely many more. Yes, that’s right the crowd was statistically diverse and appeared to parallel the population as a whole in terms of these demographics. Agreed, the sample size was comparatively small, but based on additional data I observed on television newscasts, I think it was representative. To collect the data, I informally interviewed a number of grief-stricken onlookers who were crowded around the entrance of the gated estate while some of the data was gathered empirically.

Also, based on the commentaries I overheard while milling around the group, I tried to assess the concept of unbridled devotion to someone you’ve never met. For instance, one young woman was wailing with tissues in hand, but stopped long enough to proclaim to the crowd “None of you know how in turmoil I am! You don’t know what he meant to me! A member of my family just died.” These are strong statements. Is such sentiment empirical evidence of the “God gene” or the “God delusion”? Maybe both!

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.” – Bertrand Russell

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for choosing to leave a comment for the Physics Groupie. Much appreciated!