In light of recent spread of misinformation regarding the coronavirus, I’ve been thinking about how flawed ideas spread. Notably, many of the rumors (eg: don’t use masks / hand sanitizer bc they don’t work) don’t actually benefit either party but still happen to rapidly spread. One interesting lens I like to use here is the meme’s eye view — a reference to Richard Dawkins meme theory where a meme represents an idea or unit of cultural transmission that strives to survive and replicate like our own genes. Humans are mere carriers of memes who keep them alive by expressing and spreading them (this can be any story, ideology, joke or brand). However fake news cases like this reveal that the relationship between humans and memes isn’t necessarily symbiotic, some memes selfishly destruct their host in favor of their own spread — much like memetic parasites.
Most misbeliefs are quickly thwarted as obviously false usually because there is insurmountable evidence against them or they are simply inconsistent. These ideas are weeded from the evolutionary cycle and soon fade from memory. However, it is the most malicious memes that develop the fitness to deceive the selection process. Memetic evolution selects for misbeliefs that are difficult to falsify, too obscure to be susceptible to scrutiny and resistant to contrary evidence. These memes tend to dance along the boundary of truth enough that they sound unbelievable when heard but conceivable enough to believe. Naturally, what seems unbelievable is shared and sensationalized and hence the memetic parasites rapidly spread from mind to mind.
But how do we know when a parasite has infested our minds? Memetic parasites can manifest into complex misbelief structures that deceptively exploit our cognitive weaknesses — much akin to an intellectual black hole an unassuming passerby might find themselves drawn in without their notice. A good tell is that these memes tend to develop taboos around their critical scrutiny or barriers to their objective investigation (eg: witchhunts, religious cults). The only sure precaution is to independently rigorously vet every meme we welcome into our minds. This is slightly unintuitive since we tend to attribute truth to ideas we hear repeatedly assuming they must have survived Darwinian evolution in order to spread. However it’s important to remember that successful memes were not necessarily configured to be true, rather only to be easily transmitted and easily believed.
“People don't have ideas. Ideas have people.” — Carl Jung
What I’ve been consuming recently
Nemesis (h/t Zack)
weekend in Tahoe got corona cucked. 15 hr drive back through snowstorm to go straight to quarantine.