Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A meme-infected mind

Image from

"Skeptical Science" reports a rather extraordinary statement by the British Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson. Here it is:

"Well I'm sitting like a rose between two thorns here and I have to take practical decisions - erm - the climate's always been changing - er - Peter mentioned the Arctic and I think in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely and you can see there were beaches there - when Greenland was occupied, you know, people growing crops - we then had a little ice age, we had a middle age warming - the climate's been going up and down - but the real question which I think everyone's trying to address is - is this influenced by manmade activity in recent years and James [Delingpole] is actually correct - the climate has not changed - the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years and what I think we've got to be careful of is that there is almost certainly - bound to be - some influence by manmade activity but I think we've just got to be rational (audience laughter)  - rational people - and make sure the measures that we take to counter it don't actually cause more damage - and I think we're about to get -" 

(See here for a detailed debunking of these statements)

Doesn't this statement give you the impression of an infected mind? Something like a Petri dish full of bacteria festering on their nutrient solution.

Minds, however, are not so often infected by real bacteria or virus but are easily prey to their virtual equivalent: "memes." Originally proposed by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s, the concept of meme sees ideas as able to reproduce and spread hopping from one mind to another; it is the origin of the idea of "viral communication".

As we see from the statement from Secretary Paterson, sometimes a human mind seems to be more a battleground for infectious memes than the rational computing device that we imagine it to be.

But what is really maddening, here, is how well "negative" memes (intended as contrary to reality) spread. There exist perfectly good memes that describe how climate change is happening; for instance "the Arctic is melting" is a meme that describes reality. But, no; these memes don't spread, don't stick. So, Mr. Paterson doesn't mention that "the Arctic is melting"(true) but that "in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely" (not true).

That is confirmed by a study by Lazlo Karafiath and Joe Brewer, co-founders of DarwinSF. They found that memes that describe the reality of climate change simply don't stick. Why is that? Perhaps we didn't find the right memes; or is it that the human mind is structured in such a way to reject reality when given a chance to do so?

Hard to say; in any case we can't hope to diffuse the urgency of doing something about climate change if we don't take into account the concept of meme. For a start, you may give a look to this video - also by the founders of DarwinSF


  1. Methinks it's less some specific meme infection but more simply just rot. The brain of Mr Paterson is obviously rotten to the core. The brain of BBC (daring to invite the crazy Mr. Delignpole, O.K. luckily not Lord Monckton) is also in a state of rot, no longer aware of what serious journalism requires.

  2. Thanks Ugo
    Grim reading - it started with Tony Blair before his party removed him, when he said re climate change "IF what scientists tell us is correct..."

    It is not just government and it is not just climate change. Significant UK minorities of different groupings are increasingly detached from reality. And 'lobbies' compete with one another to capture policy from a vacillating government. Public attitudes sway toward different 'camps' that still promote yesterday's nostrums,; from a political party wanting to leave the EU who claim 'immigration' as the key issue, to Scottish Nationalists looking forward to finally having 'Scotland's Oil'.

    Facts about climate change will be obscured, even if politicians could be bothered to understand them!

    Phil H

  3. The Wikipedia nicely explains that:

    "George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949. The title of the novel, its themes, the Newspeak language, and the author's surname are often invoked against control and intrusion by the state, while the adjective Orwellian describes a totalitarian dystopia characterised by government control and subjugation of the people. Orwell's invented language, Newspeak, satirises hypocrisy and evasion by the state: for example, the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) oversees torture and brainwashing, the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty) oversees shortage and famine, the Ministry of Peace (Minipax) oversees war and atrocity, and the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) oversees propaganda and historical revisionism"

    Does the above remind anyone of various things that are happening right now?

    A few examples:

    - In the post above a lunatic and totally bonkers Minister of "the Environment" infected by about 150 sick memes, rails against the most important environmental issue of the day
    - A National "Security" Agency of the biggest "democracy" invades everyone's privacy and launches an intrusive and massive worldwide surveillance and spying program
    - At Camp "Justice" Guantanamo people are routinely tortured and water-boarded
    - Assorted Ministries of "Defence" launch some new illegal and unjust "humanitarian" war every other day
    - Television "News" channels broadcast primarily propaganda and regurgitated government party lines
    - The personal aircraft of heads of state "we" do not happen to like are forced to land for inspection on a whim

    And the list goes on.

    Could it be that something NOT right is going on? Or is it all George Orwell's fault for obviously being such a lunatic himself?

    Owen Paterson as the next Prime Minister of the U.K. I say !