Re: July 31 _New Scientist_ article, etc.

Aaron Lynch (
Sat, 02 Oct 1999 09:28:30 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 02 Oct 1999 09:28:30 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: July 31 _New Scientist_ article, etc.
In-Reply-To: <000801bedaba$39739180$e3708cd4@paul>

At 08:34 PM 7/30/99 +0200, (in "Parody..." thread) Paul Marsden wrote:


>Check out the New Scientist article, our theoretical positions have more in
>common than you would probably want to admit - but I'm a sucker for evidence
>and theoretically informed argument. My problem.

It occurs to me that my silence on this article may have been mistaken by
some as indicating tacit agreement, or even that you have restored
scholarly credibility after the JASSS "review." Therefore, I now comment on
the 31 July _New Scientist_ article.

First, I have no problem with others taking similar theoretical positions.
I have even encountered the beginnings of such thought among friends
unaware of Dawkins years before my own publication. However, the article
attributes to you certain extraordinary claims being made without any
evidence or theoretical support and not even labeled as hypotheses.

Consider step 1 of your formula for marketing success:

"Step 1: ignore the actual utility of the product and concentrate entirely
on what really sells it, brand identity."

Now, I certainly would never argue that a company can safely ignore
marketing and brand identity, even with a wonderful product or the
proverbial "better mousetrap." Poorly marketed but somewhat superior
products have repeatedly lost out to better-marketed competitors. Moreover,
fads, crazes, and fashions affect various consumer markets (I have
discussed some of these myself). And there is of course a niche for
consumer fraud: the selling of zero to negative utility products with false
claims of positive utility and slick brand names. Such scam artists need
only fool a small fraction of their audience to make money. But IGNORE the
actual quality of the product as a general rule for *blue-chip* companies?
Concentrate ENTIRELY on brand identity? What evidence do you have that this
formula works? To the contrary, all sorts of large companies have suffered
dire consequences from letting the utility or relative utility of their
products slip. Suppose Richard Branson did this with his airline. Angry,
delayed customers with lost baggage would soon be calling "Virgin" by
another name altogether as they streamed forth from the airports. Or
suppose he allowed fungicide and fetid carbonation into his cola. Same
thing: a memetic disaster for the fledgling brand and the company. Just
recently we saw the Iridium company go bankrupt, and not because it's brand
name did not get loads of free press. The company just did not correctly
forecast the utility of a large satelite phone among typical "high-end"
world travelers--just a few of many real-world counterexamples of the
utility-ignoring formula that come to mind.

The idea that "memetic engineering" and other putative mind control methods
offer something for nothing (or nearly nothing) is not new. We have "Speed
Seduction," with hucksters claiming that by focusing on mental manipulation
instead of improving aesthetic, social, sexual, and economic utility as a
mate, a man can "cram his bed with girls" the easy way. Other comments on
this are in the memetics archives, but "Speed Seduction" (up to $895 per
tape) is aggressively promoted as an applied "science" with claims of
empirical proof. We have also seen claims they you can have a fabulous life
with the help of some easy memetic advice given by seminar or book. (A
$2500 to $5000 1-week "level 3" course is now being hawked.) We have seen a
claim that anyone can program themselves a cult following just by slapping
together some attractive memes, and even an attempt to use Fiji for
spreading cultish ideas a la Tony Robbins. And of course there has been a
"memetic revelation" of the existence of "God." Now we have a claim that a
company can ignore the utility of its products and make money the easy way:
purely by memetically engineering its brands, a consumer market version of
what "Speed Seduction" claims for the mate market. This also marks the
entry of fantastic "memetic" influence claims into the general science
literature, albeit the flashy popular science literature--a literature that
often takes up controversial but "sciencey" fringe ideas. (Wild claims
being associated with "memetics" had previously been marketed outside the
general science literature, as in specialized newsletters and web pages.)

There is a "sucker born every minute" as the old saying goes. But coming up
with new ways of taking advantage of this situation is not science, but
pseudoscience--no matter how much it is dressed up in academic citations or
unsubstantiated claims of preferring "evidence" and "theoretically informed
argument." Your claims not only do not come with rigorous evidence, but
they also sound "too good to be true," a factor that tends to immunize
against memetics. It might be that you only need to convince one company
per thousand to just experiment with the utility-ignoring formula in order
to make money, but a much larger proportion will be negatively impressed
with "memetics" in the process. (I honestly don't expect mere words such as
mine to have much effect on the marketing of expensive tapes, courses,
marketing services, etc., however.)

The beginnings of real science may sometimes get in the way of profitable
uses of pseudoscience. Hence, a certain purveyor of "Speed Seduction" tapes
gratuitously and severely falsified information about my book a few years
ago--though he did not dress it up in academic language. Perhaps
scientifically conservative memetics just gets in the way of fantastic
mind-control and marketing claims, although I am not certain of what role
this may have played in the outburst of extensive falsifications against my
book in JASSS. A lack of utility of the "review" in conveying accurate
information might, after all, be expected in juxtaposition to the _New
Scientist_ piece.

It might be interesting to analyze the idea that you can "ignore the actual
utility of the product" as a meme in its own right. Whether it spreads
widely or not, I would expect many people to doubt the utility of
scientific, academic, or commercial products offered by those promulgating
such a meme. Rather, I would expect many to regard adherents of that meme
as pushing slickly branded but frequently useless products. That, in turn,
can somewhat limit the meme's propagation, especially among serious
scientists and skeptical thinkers.

Despite my disagreement with the notion of ignoring product utility, I
still agree with the idea that memetics has potential application to brand
marketing. I am not pursuing this application myself, but see nothing wrong
with others doing so--it may help get certain lines of empirical research
funded. Memetics itself, however, would be better served if those making a
career in it would avoid hyperbole about their own work, avoid severe
extensive falsifications of colleagues' work, and refrain from claims of
empirical superiority after advocating unproven business practices.

Incidentally, my book already points out that it proposes *hypotheses* in
hopes of stimulating future empirical research. However, neither research
into my hypotheses nor research into your hypotheses will be furthered by
mutual reproach over the empirical work that remains to be done. I also
think you might have better luck attracting those blue chip companies to
memetic marketing methods if you avoid extreme claims. If you don't yet
have the empirical evidence, then at least try to maintain standards of
plausibility for the business hypotheses you propose--including at least
consistency with credible anecdotal evidence. In other words, try not to
make it so easy to think of numerous counterexamples to your hypothesis.

The kind of hyperbole that often works so well in consumer marketing does
rather poorly among skeptical, critical scientists. Likewise, in the
applied arena, the kind of "vaporware" campaign that might persuade
software developers to choose one operating system over another may not
work in selling the concept of memetic engineering. (Operating systems and
processors are a special case where the utility per dollar cost depends
upon backward compatibility to existing products as well as how many
developers are persuaded to code new products for a platform--hence
"vaporware" campaigns are actually a way of building utility for these
products more so than for most other products.) In memetics, on the other
hand, if you claim or pretend to have engineering capabilities not yet
devised, you may simply discredit yourself when called upon to prove it.
Unlike new operating systems, there are already widely used and effective
methods of marketing that companies can use instead. Also unlike operating
systems, there are a lot more skeptics of the idea of memes than there are
skeptics of the idea of, say, a future 64-bit PC operating system. Memetics
and memeticists will get a lot more respect if people stop trying to sell
it as something more than it is. Quantum physics, a more established field,
can more easily withstand the discrediting effect of people "selling out"
and purveying "quantum healing," _The Unconscious Quantum_, etc. (Science
still suffers from this, however.) Memetics, being a newer field, will
often be held to higher standards than physics is.

--Aaron Lynch

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