Friday, 20 January 2012

The Memetic Fallacy

The fight behind climate change is very political in nature, with liberal-leaning and progressives being the main advocates of trying to fight global warming. The battle over evolution has a very religious component to it, with evolution often being advocated by atheists and creation by theists. Anti-smoking campaigns and rhetoric are nearly exclusively political now. The biggest pushers of science-based medicine are corporations whose only interest is their bottom line.

The question of whether or not climate change, or evolution, or the cancerous effects of smoking, or the efficacy of medicine are scientific questions, yet their propagation in wider culture often has very little to do with their scientific evidence. It's true that greenies and tree-huggers use climate change as a political tool to push their agenda, for example, but what does that say about the scientific validity of climate change? Very little...

Yet I have come across the argument that climate change science is an invention of leftists looking to push their political agenda. Just as I have come across that evolution is an atheist lie to deny God as the Creator, and the anti-vaccination movement is rife with claims about the science of vaccines being a Big Pharma scam. But it was a conversation with a friend about smoking that inspired me to write this post.

The notion of memes, as initially coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, is that ideas propagate in a manner akin to genes, so what survives in the realm of ideas are those that are good at being replicated. Whether or not memes are a good scientific construct is another debate, and for the purposes of this post it doesn't matter whether or not memes are a sound concept.

The memetic fallacy is a fallacy of relevance where one mistakes the reasons for its propagation as the reasons for its validity.
That climate change seems to go down a particular ideology is quite far removed from the science of it, which may lead to fabricated or exaggerated claims, but it would be a mistake to not look at where the weight of expertise lies. The propagation method may lead to embellishments or outright falsehoods, but that's not enough to dismiss the original evidence.

Likewise when it comes to evolution, the weight of expertise sits firmly on the side that it is true. That there are prominent atheists that are also evolutionary biologists or that atheists promote evolution doesn't mean that it's an idea created to undermine God and promote atheism. It might be a reason to be atheist, but that atheists promote it isn't the reason why the idea has done so well scientifically.

Perhaps like the concept of meme itself, the mistake is leaving something vital by focusing purely on its delivery. In the case of these arguments, the mistake is to leave out the content itself; that explanation of its propagation is taken as being sufficient to explain the content.

It's with good reason that we are wary of the messengers - the reputation that lawyers, advertisers, and especially politicans have received is not entirely undeserved. When there are ulterior motives, it does call into question how objective the messenger is, but is not in and of itself sufficient to dismiss the message itself as being a product of those same ulterior motives.

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