Attention and Science: Rotating the Idea Seven Degrees

October 4, 2022

I read a BigThink article called “The Credibility of Science Is Damaged When Universities Brag about Themselves.” The basic premise of the article is fine: Attention is what matters today. The “why” is not explored, but it is characterized: Payoff.

I noted this statement in the article:

Scientists have always wanted to have their work noticed. That’s not new. However, when attention becomes currency, the ecosystem changes. And that changing ecosystem encompasses universities, academic publishing, and the way science is communicated to the public.

I am not comfortable with categorical affirmatives like “always.” I know from my work in online information and systems that the enabler of being noticed is content which is not intermediated by an institution, commercial enterprise, or government agency with a semi-reliable moral and ethical compass.

Scientists, like any other group of humanoids, get a kick out of the fame payoff. Some cannot cope and end up spending some time under special observation like Kurt Gödel or André Bloch. Others are content to chug along with some cocktail party ammunition tucked in their pockets.

A larger issue underlies the analysis of scientists chasing attention (adulation, prizes, lecture opportunities, etc.) The inherent function of online information is to disintermediate. Hasta la vista judgment, bureaucratic barriers, and traditional procedures.

How are those airline schedules matching up with the reality of getting from A to B? What about the functionality of the US health care system and the individuals who need treatment? Are those children graduating from grade school, high school, and college unable to read at their grade level mapping to job opportunities? You can think of your own examples.

My point is that the devaluation of science manifests itself in the “attention economy.” The driver, however, is online information.

Welcome to the online revolution. Remediation will be difficult, perhaps impossible. As “knowledge” is vaporized by the flows of online data, those responsible for the fixing up of science, basic service delivery, and certain American automobiles will be less well equipped than previous generations’ wizards.

The future is now. Log on, absorb TikToks, and surf Amazon… scientifically, of course. Maybe that seven degrees rotation is not reproducible. Some is not either.

Stephen E Arnold, October 4, 2022


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