Memetics

Placeholder.

Hybrid social-pathagenic contagion

TBD. I think Peter Watts wrote a science fiction story about this. More contemporary, the question of what the effect of socially-transmitted beliefs about disease does to socially-transmitted disease. If the anti-vaxxers tend to know each other and meet up, what does this do for broader social immunity?

See moloch.

Girardian mimetic violence

That mimetic not memetic, although there are points of contact. Girard apparently wrote about our desires being often about being something rather than having something. Alex Danco summarizes a few choice morsels:

at a deep neurological level, when we watch other people and pattern our desires off theirs, we are not so much acquiring a desire for that object so much as learning to mimic somebody, and striving to become them or become like them. Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire. We don’t want; we want to be.

I do not know what neurological level he is attempting to evoke here. Perhaps some of that mirror neuron business. In any case, needs work, citation required.

Modern status forums like Instagram are designed explicitly to bring out this dual admiration/resentment emotion within us. Instagram’s real product isn’t photos; it’s likes. The photos and the events they depict are just the transient objects that bubble up to the surface; what really matters is the relationship between the people. But the fact that Instagram’s product is built around the objects and not the models isn’t an accident: it’s sneaky. It creates way more space and oxygen for resentment and desperation to grow beneath the surface. It’s not about the photo or what it depicts; it’s always about the other person.

Or see Byrne Hobart again:

We’re used to thinking of desire as something that emerges organically: you want something, and you try to get it. Sometimes, it’s easy; sometimes, there’s competition.

To Girard, that’s all wrong: you want something because of competition. Success is just a story you tell yourself about your desire for your rivals to fail.

Stand alone complex

Stand Alone Complex is a handy word in this domain.

A ‘Stand Alone Complex' can be compared to the copycat behavior that often occurs after incidents such as serial murders or terrorist attacks. An incident catches the public’s attention and certain types of people “get on the bandwagon”[…] It is particularly apparent when the incident appears to be the result of well-known political or religious beliefs, but it can also occur in response to intense media attention. For example, a mere fire, no matter the number of deaths, is just a garden variety tragedy. However, if the right kind of people begin to believe it was arson, caused by deliberate action, the threat increases drastically that more arsons will be committed.

What separates the ‘Stand Alone Complex’ from normal copycat behavior is that the originator of the copied action is not even a real person, but merely a rumored figure that commits said action. Even without instruction or leadership a certain type of person will spring into action to imitate the rumored action and move toward the same goal even if only subconsciously.>The result is an epidemic of copied behavior—with no originator. One could say that the Stand Alone Complex is mass hysteria-with purpose.

Directed use of this I have seen referred to as stochastic terrorism, as covered in economics of insurgence.

Pluralistic ignorance

A classic stylized phenomenon. See pluralistic ignorance

Toxoplasma of rage

The self-perpetuation and amplification of some already difficult pathologies through the contemporary mediascape is where we are all collectively really doomed. e.g. Toxoplasma of rage by Scott Alexander:

More important, unarmed black people are killed by police or other security officers about twice a week according to official statistics, and probably much more often than that. You’re saying none of these shootings, hundreds each year, made as good a flagship case as Michael Brown? In all this gigantic pile of bodies, you couldn’t find one of them who hadn’t just robbed a convenience store? Not a single one who didn’t have ten eyewitnesses and the forensic evidence all saying he started it?

I propose that the Michael Brown case went viral — rather than the Eric Garner case or any of the hundreds of others — because of the PETA Principle. It was controversial. A bunch of people said it was an outrage. A bunch of other people said Brown totally started it, and the officer involved was a victim of a liberal media that was hungry to paint his desperate self-defence as racist, and so the people calling it an outrage were themselves an outrage. Everyone got a great opportunity to signal allegiance to their own political tribe and discuss how the opposing political tribe were vile racists / evil race-hustlers. There was a steady stream of potentially triggering articles to share on Facebook to provoke your friends and enemies to counter-share articles that would trigger you.

Belief

The function of belief in individuals

David Banks’s diatribe depicts a particular kind of strategic belief:

“[Radiolab recasts] the political as endlessly unresolved scientific controversies, and act as science concern trolls,” he claims. These “explainerist” nuggets of satisfying factiness - why are they popular? One answer might be that they are a good marker of membership in a tribe that likes a certain kind of cocktail conversation.

What kind of beliefs prosper in society? What is the function of our truth claims? When should you believe “true” things, and what are true things anyway? Are true things about the objects of science the same as true things about society?

Goal: find a way of navigating the pragmatic functions of belief that sidestep the divisions in this anecdote:

I know this sounds like a story from some bad conservative novel, but it is not unheard of for rooms full of PhDs to applaud when someone says that, for example, witchcraft is just another way of knowledge and that disputing factual claims to its power is cultural hegemony.

To my ears it’s the emphases that make this sound uncomfortable, rather than the broad-stroke outline. On one hand I think that empirical fact is special in having a reality independent of human existence. On the other hand, I don’t suppose any of our epistemological methods give us perfect access to the reality I posit. Having claimed my beliefs are not, with 100% certainty, raw and unmediated rays of truth, I have opened the door to negotiating how certain my beliefs are, and admitting that other ways perspectives might have a point that I cannot dismiss a priori. I am all for admitting that our beliefs are uncertain and our categories subject to revision, otherwise why would I bother with statistics, which is my day job?

Also, how about beliefs that are not about facts as such? Does human knowledge transmission at large deal mostly in transmission of precise factual claims about reproducible experiments, or is there a whole bunch of other stuff going on with an indirect relationship to facts about gross physical reality, and some kind of active role in creating whatever passes for facts in the negotiated social reality?

Option B. We need the tools unpack the other propensities in the uses of the language around belief, and disentangle what is going with cheap talk and signalling. We do deploy belief in a variety of ways, often emotional, often figurative.1

How good are we at forming good facty beliefs? Scott Alexander found the irritating case study of bodybuilders suggests…. tl;dr: We are not very good at facty beliefs?

Antonio García Martínez, in The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, belabours the point that faith-based engagement is how we predominantly engage with the world. Or, as Herbert Simon and Eliezer Yudkowsky could have co-authored, belief is how a heuristic feels from the inside.

Belief and groups

Related, the levels of simulacra model is one attempt to dissect this. At the other end of that link is an nifty analysis of using beliefs about COVID-19 as a test case. I find this analysis more powerful than bullshit-based analysis, which is a blunter tool (and also tends to be used to imply that your opponent is doing it and not you.)

Saying that something not explicitly religious has “become a religion” has become a mark of pseudo-cleverness. By “religious,” people tend to mean irrational, tribal, and devotional — and in aiming the adjective at phenomena they think little of, they show it is inherently pejorative. Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites has the virtue of assuming humanity is sufficiently “religious” that such qualities, among others, defy transcendence. She asks not “is this religious” but “what does it mean for this to be religious.”[…]

He has analysis of his own of dynamics here:

Participation in online communities requires far less personal commitment than those of real life. And commitment has often cloaked hypocrisy. Men could play the role of God-fearing family men in public, for example, while cheating on their wives and abusing their kids. Being a respectable member of their community depended, to a great extent, on being a family man, but being a respectable member of online right-wing communities depends only on endorsing the concept.

Another foray into this kind of idea that I ran into in the wild is M. Taylor Saotome-Westlake’s Book Review: Charles Murray’s Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class. They analyse a co-ordination-on-belief problem., from an economics-of-coordination angle, with the particular interesting example of taboos in discussing psychometrics:

And that’s where the blank slate doctrine absolutely shines—it’s the Schelling point for preventing group conflicts! (A Schelling point is a choice that’s salient as a focus for mutual expectations: what I think that you think that I think… &c. we’ll choose.) If you admit that there could differences between groups, you open up the questions of in what exact traits and of what exact magnitudes, which people have an incentive to lie about to divert resources and power to their group by establishing unfair conventions and then misrepresenting those contingent bargaining equilibria as some “inevitable” natural order.

If you’re afraid of purported answers being used as a pretext for oppression, you might hope to make the question un-askable. Can’t oppress people on the basis of race if race doesn’t exist! Denying the existence of sex is harder—which doesn’t stop people from occasionally trying. […]

The taboo mostly only applies to psychological trait differences, both because those are a sensitive subject, and because they’re easier to motivatedly see what you want to see: whereas things like height or skin tone can be directly seen and uncontroversially measured with well-understood physical instruments (like a meterstick or digital photo pixel values), psychological assessments are much more complicated and therefore hard to detach from the eye of the beholder. (If I describe Mary as “warm, compassionate, and agreeable”, the words mean something in the sense that they change what experiences you anticipate—if you believed my report, you would be surprised if Mary were to kick your dog and make fun of your nose job—but the things that they mean are a high-level statistical signal in behavior for which we don’t have a simple measurement device like a meterstick to appeal to if you and I don’t trust each other’s character assessments of Mary.)

Notice how the “not allowing sex and race differences in psychological traits to appear on shared maps is the Schelling point for resistance to sex- and race-based oppression” actually gives us an explanation for why one might reasonably have a sense that there are dread doors that we must not open. Undermining the “everyone is Actually Equal” Schelling point could catalyze a preference cascade—a slide down the slippery slope to the next Schelling point, which might be a lot worse than the status quo on the “amount of rape and genocide” metric, even if it does slightly better on “estimating heritability coefficients.”

I am not endorsing Saotome-Westlake’s psychometric opinions, as such, but I am intrigued by what this example suggests about what kinds of norms that groups can support and propagate.

Or why not read Meaningnesss, on wonder for some highbrow Insane Clown Posse.

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1. And in any case, scientists at their most precise and factual still uses emotion and metaphor to do communicative work. That is, I suspect, practically unavoidable, or worse, avoiding it would be inefficient.↩︎

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