Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Meme Test

The professors asked me what good this theory of memes was. Did it have any predictive value? Do we have any evidence that a meme can actually influence behavior? That is, do the "infected" individuals show any measurable differences from the rest of the population? Can we say that there is something analogous to population genetics or ecology in memetics? Make a prediction that can be tested.

OK. I was on the spot. Here’s what I came up with:

There is a memeplex associated with the handling of the US flag. People within a certain sub-culture in the US learn the "proper" treatment of the flag and take it to heart. A single element of this plex is the meme dictating that "the Flag must not touch the ground." I, myself, have emotions associated with the Flag, and, although not steeped in these particular doctrines, would not willingly allow a US flag to touch the ground. I am a Democrat, but I will predict that Republicans are more susceptible to this meme than are Democrats. What about Republicans who become Democrats or Democrats who turn Republican? I don’t know for sure, but I have a hunch and I’m proposing the following test. If we were to observe successive randomly selected Fourth of July parades for several decades and count the number of times that flags were permitted to touch the ground, that number would be higher in years when the Democrats had done well in elections. I am postulating that the self-identification of "Republican" provides a more hospitable environment for this particular meme.

There are two side issues here. First, it may be more convenient to measure this phenomenon using survey methods. I agree, but the challenge here is to identify an actual behavior that is effected by the meme. Second, if the knowledge of the test were to become widespread, it would have unpredictable effects on the outcome.

I’m pretty sure that we can come up with more such tests, and easier ones, if we put I minds to it. I suspect that some folks have already done so. I believe that this is the kind of thing that has to be done to prove that the meme concept provides a productive viewpoint for social scientists.

1/3/2007 11:24 AM

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At Saturday, January 06, 2007 9:26:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Might it be useful to check the political orientation of the owners of flags in different conditions? Although not as widespread as the don't-touch-the-ground meme, you're also not supposed to fly tattered, worn-out flags, and you're not supposed to leave the flag flying at night unless illuminated (or so I was trained).

Also, isn't it pretty well demonstrated that a person's politics/religion are largely determined by those of their parents? Isn't that essentially the answer to a meme test?

Maybe there's a test to be had in efforts to alter stigmas and taboos, such as homosexuality (queer/homo/fag vs. gay), religion (atheist/heathen vs. Bright), mental health ("nervous breakdown" vs. stress). That last one may be reaching a bit more than the others, but it seems to me there's a stigma associated with mental health issues that's been breaking down over the years, possibly as a result of new memes coming from somewhere.

Have your in-laws had any objections to the idea of the meme on the basis that it's a reification?

Google on "memetics" and "predictive value". Three of four hits down the list is Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine. Have you see it? That book blew me away. She actually persuaded me that memes probably constitute a second driver of biological evolution as well as social.

At Sunday, January 07, 2007 1:29:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Sure, we can study the flora and the fauna. (Should there be a third kindom for memes starting with the letter "f" -- the fiona maybe?) Most memes are contracted from your memetic parents. Perhaps your biological parents have provided you with restrictions on which memes you can absorb. There is speculation, for instance, of the St. Thomas gene, that induces congenital skepticism. But just because the origin of memes can be easily traced, for the most part, does not mean that the scope of meme research is in any way limited.

What I am interested in doing for my inlaws is describing a situation where it makes a difference whether a meme is a meme or just a concept. Is it a dynamic self-promoting thing, or just a static item on a list that can be taught in the correct order by correct teachers of orthodoxy.

The flag-worship memeplex is very interesting, in and of itself, especially since we are, ourselves, infected with it. We can look at it a thousand ways, but does it reflect on the existence or characteristics of memes as replicating entities? I'm not even sure my proposed research would actually make the necessary distinction either. Someone could always argue that cognitive dissonance theory was a better way to explain the popularity of Republican ideas in Republican environments. Maybe they'd be right.

Yes I did read the Blackmore book. I referred to it earlier this year in my auto-catalysis post. I've followed her career for decades in the Skeptical Inquirer, but I never knew about the meme book until last year when you mentioned it. Although I basically knew what she was going to say, it was well worth reading.

At Sunday, January 07, 2007 1:36:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Maybe we could include surveys with everyone who buys a new flag and ask them what they did with the old flag? That, at least, would have the virtue of being statistically valid. We could identify political culture by locating the point-of-sale.


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