Appendix 2 : Ben Pile’s view
While many folks employ the concept of memes or at least bandy the word ‘meme’ about, simultaneously there is enormous misunderstanding about memetics. And due to misunderstandings, the very mention of memes can evoke for some an emotive defense similar to that of the climate Consensus. Given too that memes are getting mentioned more often in the climate domain (good), and yet the domain may not be too well tooled up, I figure a few simple clarifications will be useful. Provided in Appendix 3 these are mostly about what is not implied by memetics, helping with context for the main post and especially this Appendix 2 also. If you have major quibbles about memetics I recommend you check out the Appendix 3 before expressing these. You may still have your quibbles, but at least some basic pitfalls will be avoided.
So, on to an interesting post by Ben Pile. This is mostly about Lukewarmers, but includes some challenge to L2015 that briefly covers the memetic angle. Early in this segment Pile speculates more generically along the same line as Betts (see Appendix 1); if Lewandowsky’s line of argument is valid: “…wouldn’t climate scientists be equally vulnerable to ‘warmist memes’ and ‘alarmist memes’?” Well absolutely. In fact, not only equally vulnerable, but far more vulnerable, because a] the emotive content of the combined CAGW meme set easily outguns skeptic memes, b] the CAGW meme set is co-evolving under a single narrative theme and hence they all work in concert, c] after a long time of success breeding success alarmist memes have generated huge resources and authority to act as amplifying engines (Pile even notes the funding / resources angle himself). So far so good, this is exactly the point of how CAGW arose to such a dominant social phenomenon. And exactly the admission of Lewandowsky too, i.e. arbitrary memes can sway all climate science. However, Pile essentially then discards this insight, continuing:
“Once we start to see debates in terms of competing memes, we reduce all notions of truth to merely a dominant ‘meme’. Which is to say ‘truth’ might be nothing more than a meme — an arbitrary judgement which merely reflects dominant beliefs, not necessary truth.”
This is fundamentally wrong, albeit it is a relatively common misconception. If a debate has become dominated by arbitrary memes, it will never be fully understood unless analyzed in those terms, which terms imply nothing at all about underlying truth. Memetics itself emphasizes that the replicative success of memes frequently trumps veracity. Lewandowsky himself understands this point, as his quote in section 3 of the main post clearly shows. He is not saying that the notion of truth has changed, he is saying that memes can fool our minds into thinking we are still strictly and objectively aligned to the notion, when this has long since ceased to be the case. Well yes.
In opposing the desperate arguments of Lewandowsky, it’s very important to challenge what is actually wrong, otherwise L2015’s assertions will not be overturned and it will likely stand. In the simplest terms, Lewandowsky is not wrong because he is using an argument based on the influence of memes, this is right. He is wrong because he hasn’t acknowledged that not only does this process work both ways, it is an overwhelmingly stronger effect in aid of the Consensus. However, Pile extends his stance still further, saying that if the underlying principle of vulnerability to memes in L2015 (and so implying along with this memetics too), was right, then it would follow that: “Indeed, science itself — as a process — is no longer the best test of theories about the material world. And science — as an institution — is no longer an authority on any matter”.
Memetics implies no such thing. The scientific method strictly adhered to constrains the evolution of memes (mostly) to a reflection of physical reality, i.e. ‘the truth’. However, as already noted the problem is that humans are still highly sensitive to arbitrary emotive memes, which hence are perfectly capable of derailing the scientific method for longer or shorter periods, especially where the conditions outlined at the top of section 3 prevail. This does not mean that our notion of scientific truth is altered in any way. It simply means that the science got derailed. Well surely we knew that anyhow, skeptics and many Luke-warmers complain of this problem all the time. And it’s happened before, e.g. with Eugenics in the first half of the twentieth century. The value of memetics is that it provides insight onto how this happens.
L2015’s argument does not stand or fall with memetics. Lewandowsky is employing a correct theory but telling only a small fraction of its story. The rest tells us how the social phenomenon of CAGW arose. Although I have huge respect for Ben Pile’s voice in the climate debate, he has strongly stated that he is no fan of memetics, and I think this position has led him to wrongly link the field to L2015’s weak arguments plus huge omissions, and then dismiss it along with the paper, hence also discarding a great gift that Lewandowsky has just handed to skeptics. I guess the arbitrary memes claiming that memetics somehow robs us of individuality or intelligence or freedom or all notions of truth or whatever, are rather emotive, and so moderately potent.
In summary, Pile emphasizes a rejection of the principle of L2015 rather than just the implausible mechanisms for the spread of ‘pause’ memes, i.e. in Pile’s summarization of Lewandowsky and Oreskes: “that science is vulnerable to some force which is greater than it”. This rejection is incompatible with evidence such as a world-stage dominated by unsupported alarmism from a raft of the most authoritative figures, IPCC groupthink and the suppression of scientific uncertainties, climate-gate and the many other characteristics of CAGW that both subvert and eclipse a vulnerable science. These characteristics are driven by potent social mechanisms that are comprehensible, which comprehension will provide exactly what Pile rightly claims is most essential to understand: “why alarmist manifestos and the models that underpin them were able to thrive.” Memetics provides a powerful lens onto these social mechanisms.
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