Re. Xtra

Paul Marsden (
Fri, 11 Sep 1998 10:48:41 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: "memetics" <>
Subject: Re. Xtra
Date: Fri, 11 Sep 1998 10:48:41 +0100

In reply to Aaron on how to count in mental memetics

> The epidemiologist can make this statement without
> knowing how many copies of a virus the host typically has, or knowing
> about what tissues it infects, how it infects them, whether it is a DNA or
> an RNA virus, etc. Much epidemiology can still be done without knowledge
> such details. Indeed, much epidemiology can be done without even knowing
> whether an infectious agent is a virus or not.

No! If epidemiologists have no evidence that visible signs map back to
internal pathogens they can do no such thing (i.e. state that infection has
occurred). All they can do is produce an epidemiology of visible external
signs, in terms of syndromes etc (i.e. when AIDS was first *observed*)
may or may not map back to internal states), and this is all memetics can do
until we identify, measure and correlate the memetic equivalent to HIV
to social contagions. Nevertheless, this seems to be an eminently fertile
ground for memetics, i.e. using memetics as a tool and not an ontology.
Epidemiology is about the study of pattern through populations, patterns
which must be observable - and memetics may usefully learn from these
techniques. Social contagion researchers have been using the EMOSA
(Epidemiological Models for the Onset of Social Action) for years, with a
good deal of success.

Now it is true that when external, visible and observable signs (and to a
lesser degree symptoms and patient history) have been positively correlated
to observable internal signs of infection of an observable pathogen,
epidemiologists take a short cut and infer that infection has taken place
from observation of these external behavioural signs (coughing, going green
etc). Memetics can't do that (yet), because behaviour cannot be correlated
to *thoughts*, because thoughts a) cannot be observed and measured (yet),
and b) it is unlikely that even if thoughts do turn out to be real objects,
that one thought will lead to one observable behaviour etc, and c) in any
case the notion of thoughts as entities in themselves originates from a
naive folk theory of mind for which there is no observable evidence. But
what we CAN do is provide an epidemiology of what we can observe, i.e.
social patterns of behaviour, and critically add an evolutionary dimension
to the incidence of and prevalence of social contagion. If positing
heuristic devices such as 'thoughts', helps you to predict or explain these
visible patterns of human activity in a population, then all well and good -
*we can use them*, but we shouldn't mistake heuristics for ontology and
start manipulating them as if they were real objects.

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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