From: derek gatherer (
Date: Wed 09 Apr 2003 - 11:50:34 GMT

  • Next message: derek gatherer: "Re: SARS!"

    > Keith Henson wrote:Meme spread by mathematical
    >models that look exactly like epidemics. We have a
    >potential pandemic (world wide epidemic) going right
    >now. I thought you might be interested in the shape
    >of the curve to

    Yes, it has a logarithmic y-axis, but is basically the
    'contagionist paradigm'.

    It also shows that even in cases where we know: a) the cause of the contagion (a real virus) b) the means of generating immunity (ie. the actual immune system), it is still very difficult to predict the outcome in any way. There may be millions of deaths or just a few thousand - it simply isn't possible to tell.

    It is even more difficult to predict social phenomena using epidemiological methods. For culturally selected traits (sensu Cavalli-Sforza), we don't know exactly what is being transmitted. We don't know why some people are more susceptible than others. We don't know why some traits are culturally selected. We can't even identify with any great certainty where cultural selection is occurring. (See

    For instance:

    >Of course there are many memes associated with this
    >business, including those which spread panic among
    ?>the population. We have already seen massive
    >disruptions of the travel industry.

    If it really is possible to track memes in the same way as one can track real viruses, it ought to be possible to produce at least as good a curve for the putative 'travel avoiding' meme as for the real virus.

    However, nobody has even begun (or can even begin) to do that, and in any case, if the predictive power was only as good as that for the real virus (and that's really as good as it could ever get - even with complete knowledge of the mechanisms), it wouldn't be something an airline CEO would want to bet his/her shirt on.

    Contagionism, as a repdictive mechanism for social phenomena, is real a non-starter. The best that can be done is to analyse things in retrospect< and say< here was a contagion> any attempt to predict the future using it is futile>

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