Saturday August 2 2008
It must be August. The Daily Mail is hunting for the Yeti again (they sent their own expedition out in 1954) and mathematical formula season has begun in earnest. PR guru Mark Borkowski’s “fame formula” was gushingly reported in the Telegraph, the Express, the Star, OK, Channel 4, ITN, and more. The Guardian were lucky enough to obtain the rights to extract his book at length, focusing on the formula. I trust the deal permits me also to reproduce large tracts of it here.
The formula is: F(T) = B+P(1/10T+1/2T2), where F is the level of fame, and T is time, measured in three-monthly intervals (T=1 after three months, T=2 after six months). All remaining units are predictably arbitrary. “B is a base level of fame that we identified and quantified by analysing the average level of fame in the year before peak.” I see. “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.” Does it work? He thinks so. “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.”
If Borkowski wishes to say that event-related fame declines rapidly with time, then he could just say so, and nobody would be desperately surprised. We should be clear: even if we allow for its disappointing lack of ambition (because all it says is that event-related fame declines with time), even if we generously disregard the pointless circularities in the definitions of its terms, this formula still fails, entirely on its own terms, to make any sense at all.
Let’s put some numbers in. At the zero end of things, what if T is a small number? Borkowski acknowledges, in the Guardian at any rate (and in brackets) that this may be a problem. “(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.)”
That doesn’t cover it. As time tends towards zero, or rather, as the value for T approaches 0, fame is approaching B + (1/0) + (1/0), so the fame arising from any fame-event, as you get closer to it, tends extremely rapidly towards infinity, which is a very big number indeed. Hang on: two numbers, both tending rapidly to infinity, both added together.
If I throw a poo at David Cameron tomorrow, under the terms of Borkowski’s formula – what is the point of it if it does not work as a model? – in the moments after the poo leaves my hand, I seem to be more famous than any other person alive, anywhere in the world, my fame tending towards infinity, eclipsing any baserate fame (B) for any person alive.
At the other end of the scale, what if T is a large number? At the end of the universe, when the Sun has exploded, when humanity no longer exists, George Clooney will still have his current level of baseline fame, B. Nothing will change: imagine that. In fact, imagine, only 400 years from now, in the year 2408, when whole new unimaginable varieties of entertainment have risen, and fallen, alongside empires, cultures, religions, perhaps the very notion of fame has changed, but George Clooney still has his current level of baseline fame, B, just as the superstars of 1608 are household names today.
This isn’t just mathematically crass, it’s historically ignorant. These formulae are ubiquitous: the happiest day of the year (sponsored by Walls ice cream); the equation for beer goggles (Bausch and Lomb); the most depressing day of the year (sponsored by Sky travel). They are wheeled out endlessly by PR companies as a way of getting their brand into the newspapers, because they know what newspaper editors will go for, like the Yeti. They know they hardly understand maths, or science, but that they think it’s clever, that all science is arbitrary, that boffins just make stuff up, so you might just as well too. They add nothing to our understanding of any subject, and as for making maths “accessible” or “cool” – like Christian rock, perhaps – they don’t do anything for anyone, if they’re just plain wrong.