Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Memetic Immune Response

So, I've been thinking about thinking.

There are a large number of people who deny things which are irrefutably true. For example, there are people who think vaccines are a scam, people who think evolution is a scam, people who think global warming is a scam. If you are one of these people, I advise you to keep it to yourself if you leave any comments, because all three of those are in no way scams.

The funny thing is that it doesn't appear that stupid people are any more likely to believe stupid things. In fact, there are some studies that indicate educated people are at least as likely to believe stupid things.

So it's not the nature of the knowledge: these subjects are well known and solidly presented. It's not the stupidity of the thinker: many reasonably intellectual people still deny them.

What it is, is memes.

Unlike the science of global warming, the "science" of memes pretty much doesn't exist. It's just a handy lens to look at the mind through. So that's what I'm doing.

We can consider a meme to be like bacteria. Everyone's got scads of bacteria in them. Most of them are symbiotic or at least harmless. A memetic version might be: you are generally positive on the subject of pants. There's no strong reason to wear pants, but I bet you can come up with a lot of justifications if you try. The truth is that you wear pants because you were taught to wear pants. It's a meme.

Some memes are not so harmless. For example, belief that vaccines are bad and refusing to get your child vaccinated has a reasonably high chance of directly killing somebody. This is not a harmless meme. The meme-bacteria is in your mind, giving you all sorts of weird symptoms that make you dangerous to those around you!

In this view of the mind, people who are anti-evolution, anti-vaccine, anti-global-warming, they're sick. I mean "sick" as in "they have a cold". They are ill. It's not something you really want to hold against them, although you may want to avoid them until they get better.

Unfortunately, "until they get better" is the iffy part.

Unlike the body, the mind has a pretty crap immune system. In fact, most of the mind's "immune response" to memes is run by the very memes you most need defending from. For example, the anti-vaccination meme erects barriers against all conversation that might attempt to shake it off.

So, once infected, you are chronically ill with the meme. It will be almost impossible to shake it and return your mind to equilibrium, where it can look at facts with something vaguely resembling reason.

Assuming that everyone is going to get sick in the span of their life, the next step is to ask ourselves: how can you grow an immune system for the mind? What would it be? How would it work?

You can't simply say "science", because while science is pretty good at laying down the facts, the whole point is that these memes exist despite the facts. There's got to be another solution.


Ellipsis said...

If this is right, then as your pants example illustrates, memetic thinking isn't just an occasional disease, but a fundamental (and probably extremely useful) aspect of cognition. The best argument in favor of strongly establishes biases is probably efficiency - if I had to re-evaluate all of my beliefs and habits each day based on whatever new evidence I had, I would waste a lot of time and mental energy, and without strong beliefs and desires it would be hard to develop long-term goals. This is, of course, also nicely analogized by the bacteria example - most bacteria in your body are beneficial, and actually necessary for your ongoing survival.

So the real task isn't generally weakening memetic thinking, but identifying harmful memes. It seems to me the best one can do is simply keep in mind that they have biases, and try to compensate for it somewhat when presented with new evidence that runs contrary to it. The better solution is probably to be much more skeptical about adopting memes in the first place, but many memes are adopted at a young age and hard to avoid.

Craig Perko said...

There is a cost to an immune system, but it is lower than the cost of having a chronic or deadly illness. Now that our minds can spread memes as easily as our bodies have been able to spread bacteria, it is time to think about how to have an equally capable mental immune system.

Identifying harmful memes is probably a core part of the issue, but it has to be some kind of diagnostic that can't be swayed by a meme.

In addition, I'd like to focus on the idea that it's okay to get sick. It's okay to be infected by a meme. As long as you have an immune system, you'll fight it off and be more immune to it in the future.

Eric Poulton said...

So would a memetic immune system have to take the form of a meme itself?

Maybe something along the lines of Carl Sagan's "Baloney Detection Kit"?

Craig Perko said...

Hmmm, I don't know. It would have to be dug in deeper than any other meme...

Patrick said...

Of course "equilibrium" is itself a meme, and thus the cycle rages at a much faster clip than any organic evolution, to the exponent of the number of communication vectors available. Hence all the jerk comments people leave on the internet. ;)

Laserbeam said...

Problem 1: how do we define this equilibrium. How do you know what memes are right or wrong? Every person actually does this on a daily basis and passes each set of new memes through a series of believes (in a not very efficient way).

Problem 2: Some things may be fundamentally true as you see them now, but new information may show up any time to disprove them. I don't say that we should discard them based on what might happen, but I don't think you should mark them as "fundamentally" true. (I'll retain myself from giving examples and arguments both for and against because you asked nicely at the beginning of the post).

Finally, memes are indeed a survival mechanism that has to do with information overload. Stanley Milgrim has done a series of experiments regarding social behavior in urban environments and the reason why people seem to respond so mechanically to events (and information) has something to do with information overload. Nice introduction into the experiments here:

Random_Phobosis said...

I thinks, as with genes, some memes seem to make their carriers better, some seem to change them to worse, but the actual utility depends on the environment and presence/absence of other genes/memes in the pool.

If you have meme "for heliocentrism" while everybody else has memes for geocentrism and heretic-burning, tough luck. Your brain was ill-equipped for survival (albeit with "right" memes).
I suspect that many of the fundamental truths (civil, economical, national, sexual, religious) that our identities are based on are in fact false - but they exist as long as they give positive net effect, and destroying all of them at once (or, even worse, just some of them, while leaving the others) could have harmful consequences.

So identifying "wrong" memes without some kind of methodology seems like an impossible task to me.

Craig Perko said...

If you have the meme for "global warming doesn't exist", or the meme for "nobody needs help with health care" or the meme for "vaccines are evil", then people DIE.

So there needs to be a way.

zvolkov said...

IMO, the question of "beneficial" vs. "harmful" memes is a wrong one. The memes exploit humans to their evolutionary advantage and when humans take the resulting subjective worldview for granted, they strive, suffer, fight w/ each other etc. IMO, recognizing the fundamental "emptiness" of all memes w/o exception is a step towards having a peaceful and healthy society. In fact, what's know called Buddhism was originally meant to be such a (now badly abused and almost completely devolved) anti-meme vaccine. Maybe it's time to reestablish it on the new, scientific basis?