The Science of Mardi Gras

By Chris Mooney | March 4, 2011 8:30 am

I’m in New Orleans this week, doing some writing and also attending…Mardi Gras. I just saw my first parade, Muses, last night.

Which inspired the joking title of this blog post. For fun, I Googled the phrase “the science of mardi gras” to see what turned up. All I got was a bizarre reference to a pretty unscientific comment by Anderson Cooper:

It’s a very public event, of course, but there’s something intensely personal about the throwing of the beads. You make eye contact with someone, toss them a necklace. They say thank you, and you roll on. The only beads people want are the ones they catch themselves. I find that very telling. The beads that fall on the ground are rarely picked up. They lack the personal connection, the bond has been broken.

That’s not my experience of Mardi Gras. My experience is that the good beads are fought for, and kids scavenge on the ground for whatever isn’t caught. If a bead is still lying on the ground it’s because it’s broken.

What’s more, as a look at the “science of mardi gras” this is pretty lame. A real science of Mardi Gras might examine, say, the strange and artificial economy that gets created for a short span of time. In this economy, completely worthless beads suddenly come to have a temporary but real value–especially if they’re plastic pearls–even as more “scarce” throws, like coconuts, spears, etc, are valued still higher. (Of course, the ones really making money are the people selling beads by the “gross”–a bag of 144 individual ones–for more than $ 20, just so they can be thrown off of floats.)

There would also be a lot of studies of alcohol’s effects on group behavior. So–Mardi Gras’s “science” very much awaits.


Comments (2)

  1. NextCenturySean

    Certainly lots of potential for behavior studies. Hormonal changes in celebratory states, crowd psychology, etc. Then there are envtl studies like energy usage, levels of (spilled) alcohol in water, second hand smoke (of many types), etc. But those aren’t as fun…Mardi Gras research should be required to be fun and entertaining for sure.

  2. WVhybrid

    Perhaps Mardi Gras would be a good time to studying tipping points. There is the tipping point of drunks, the tipping point of police tolerance, then there is always the tipping point step change in behavior and value of beads that occurs at Tuesday midnight.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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