Monday, July 28, 2008

The fame formula (bollocks)

So there's a book about the PR industry coming out, in which Mark Borkowski (read about him on Wikipedia) tries to make PR look like science. It seems to be utter bollocks. There's an extract in The Guardian. (The Guardian is an odd rag, combining quite sensible stuff (include Ben Goldacre's column) with cringeworthy trash, regularly including horrifying simpering in the media section. Here's a long-ish extract from the extract:
The formula for illustrating the decline in fame from its peak works out as follows:

F(T) = B+P(1/10T+1/2T2)

where:

F is the level of fame;

T is time, measured in three-monthly intervals. So T=1 is after three months, T=2 is after six months, etc. Fame is at its peak when T=0. (Putting T=0 into the equation gives an infinite fame peak, not mathematically accurate, perhaps, but the concept of the level of fame being off the radar is apposite.);

B is a base level of fame that we identified and quantified by analysing the average level of fame in the year before peak. For George Clooney, B would be a large number, but for a fabulous nobody, like a new Big Brother contestant, B is zero;

P is the increment of fame above the base level, that establishes the individual firmly at the front of public consciousness.

This formula fits the data remarkably well, giving a precise numerical value to the 15-month theory: if I put in T=5 (corresponding to 15 months after the peak), it gives F=B+P(1/50+1/50), which works out at F=B+.04P. In other words, up to 96% of the fame-boost achieved at the peak of public attention has been frittered away, and the client or product is almost back to base level.

Ah, right. So division by zero gives you infinity does it? Well, no. Division by zero is a meaningless operation in real number arithmetic, and from what I gather it's a headache trying to define it in just about any other domain.

Quoting Wolfram MathWorld:
To the persistent but misguided reader who insists on asking "What happens if I do divide by zero," Derbyshire (2004, p. 36) provides the slightly flippant but firm and concise response, "You can't. It's against the rules." Even in fields other than the real numbers, division by zero is never allowed (Derbyshire 2004, p. 266)

(Reference: Derbyshire, J. Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics. New York: Penguin, 2004.)
It's bollocks, Jim, just as we know it.

6 comments:

Sal said...

Listen.. im guessing you're getting this from all the news articles that are floating about today about this. Well, everyone has jumped on the bandwagon talking about the maths 'formula', not realising that that is a TINY part of what the book's about. As always journalists have jumped on the easiest thing to report on..

Im guessing Borkowski is tickled by all the attention on the maths 'Formula' as a publicity hook - just what i bet he wants - including blog posts like yours! To get informed read the proper website: http://www.thefameformula.com

Doctor Spurt said...

Sure, the formula is in some ways an easy target, although I think the rest of the extract I read was mostly nonsense pseudo-science too. Borkowski is, I expect, good at what he does, but it doesn't follow that he's good at explaining what he does or why it works. This seems to me to have the same epistemic status as some of the blatherings of musicians who can often make fine albums but say nothing sensible about how or why they did what they did.

Sal said...

Hmmm..
Well, I can report back now.. I have a copy of said book. Only a little way through but there is as yet no mention of any pseudo-scientific formulas - just a really interesting history of the early days of publicity. I have to say, i wasnt expecting it to be a page turner, but its good stuff.. Have to wait and see what 'real' reviewers say about it though!

Doctor Spurt said...

Thanks for following up, sal. I'm not surprised that Borkowski has produced an interesting and well informed details of the history of the contemporary publicity industry. Then it is just a shame that an angle used to hype the book was a bit of silly pseudo-science.

Doctor Spurt said...

Ben Goldacre got onto this on his Bad Science blog too:

http://www.badscience.net/2008/08/fame/

Doctor Spurt said...

Er, sorry, this "one".