Andy West analyzes climate catastrophism as a ‘memeplex’. The most complete version of his argument is presented in a long essay titled ‘The Memeplex of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming’, available at his blog <wearenarrative.wordpress.com/>. This essay, or fragments and summaries of it, have been widely circulated and some climate skeptics have welcomed West’s conclusions.
I’ll begin with where I agree with West. Despite the occasional description of climate catastrophism by Rush Limbaugh and a few others as a ‘hoax’, the term ‘hoax’ implies that the perpetrators don’t themselves believe in it, whereas it’s only too obvious that in this case they do believe in it. Climate catastrophism is no more a hoax than Marxism, Islam, psychoanalysis, or Seventh-Day Adventism. Or, if we want to take examples from institutional science, cold fusion, Martian canals, or Lysenkoism.
Climate skeptics have often likened catastrophism to a religion (and catastrophists sometimes liken climate skepticism to a religion—when they’re not claiming that it’s all paid for by the oil companies and is therefore a hoax). West maintains that this likening of catastrophism to a religion is a basically correct insight, but slightly misdefined, in that global warming catastrophism and, say, Mormonism, are both instances of a category broader than that of religion, a category West calls the “memeplex.”
Up to this point, I completely agree with West, though I more often employ a different terminology. I would say that climate catastrophism and Mormonism are both instances of an enthusiastic belief system. (Come to think of it, Mormonism began with a hoax, when the con artist Joseph Smith dishonestly claimed he’d gotten The Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, but it’s not a hoax today and has millions of sincere adherents.)
Now I’ll explain where I think Andy West goes wrong. According to Richard Dawkins, who coined the term ‘meme’ in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, a meme is a unit of cultural transmission, just as a gene is a unit of biological transmission. Anything culturally transmitted is a meme. All of literature, science, religion, music, common-sense wisdom, and technology consists of memes, and nothing but memes. The first law of thermodynamics is just as much a meme as the story of Eve and the Serpent (or we can view each as a set of memes; this makes no difference). Andy West’s writing, like mine and like Al Gore’s, consists of nothing but memes. Any idea, belief, or practice, capable of being picked up by one human from another human and thus perpetuated culturally, is a meme. No exceptions: this is the definition of ‘meme’.
I’ll be focusing here on beliefs, so I’ll equate a meme with a belief. Since it doesn’t affect any of the issues, I’ll ignore here the fact that some memes are not beliefs—a meme may be a practice or an idea that is not believed in, because it does not assert anything about the way the world is.
If every belief is a meme, it follows that every assemblage of beliefs is an assemblage of memes. Andy West, however, wants to exclude some assemblages of beliefs from his category of ‘memeplexes’. He doesn’t see climate skepticism as a memeplex and he’s not going to agree that his own theory of memeplexes is itself a memeplex.
It seems likely from his essay that he even refuses to recognize some transmissible beliefs as memes, and there are certainly numerous passing remarks indicating that West confines the term ‘memeplex’ to a very restricted range of belief systems. Take West’s reference (p. 58) to “Both the laudable and the lurking memetic content” (p. 2) in an essay by Pascal Bruckner (a French philosopher, author of The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, critical of greenism or what he calls “ecologism”). How can there be a “lurking” memetic content in Bruckner’s essay when every idea in that essay, and in every essay ever penned, including every essay by Andy West, is a meme? And notice how “laudable’ is counterposed with “memetic.” West tells us that “Memeplexes wallow in uncertainty and confusion” (p. 3). I’m guessing he wouldn’t say that quantum mechanics wallows in uncertainty and confusion. He does tell us that “If done properly, science is anti-memetic” (p. 63).
A parallel would be if someone wanted to say that not all bits of a chromosome carrying information about the organism’s structure and behavior are to be called ‘genes’. Some are to be called ‘genes’ and others are not to be called ‘genes’, and we are then going to discuss the baleful influence of these ‘genes’ on the way the organism works, the implication being that the heritable bits of information we’re not calling ‘genes’ (but leaving unnamed and undescribed) are somehow healthy and unproblematic, while the ‘genes’ are a seriously disturbing influence. (And this might even have a popular resonance. A survey of why some people are nervous about genetically modified vegetables found that the main reason was that these people had heard that the vegetables in question contain genes!)
Andy West is not alone. The term ‘meme’ has achieved a currency beyond that of scholars interested in cultural transmission, and as so often happens, the term has changed its meaning as it has passed from specialized to more general usage. So today we often come across the definition of a ‘meme’ as something mindless, something non-reflective, something perhaps even irrational. West has simply adopted this popular modification of the meaning of ‘meme’.
It’s one thing to say that beliefs may sometimes survive for reasons other than their appeal to reason and evidence. It’s quite another to say that only beliefs which survive for such reasons are to be called ‘memes’. One thing that Dawkins’s concept of the meme alerts us to is that an idea may spread for reasons other than the ostensible ones. That is true and can be illuminating, but it does not help to then confine the concept of ‘meme’ to those case where the actual reasons for its spread differ from the ostensible ones. And, let’s never forget, an idea may spread for reasons other than the ostensible ones and still be correct, while an idea may spread for exactly the ostensible reasons and still be incorrect.
I haven’t done a thorough check on whether any other serious writers on memes have adopted, as West has, the more popular meaning. But I do have Susan Blackmore’s fine book, The Meme Machine (1999), sitting on my shelf. This is the book that popularized the term ‘memeplex’ (employed in 1995 by Hans-Cees Speel as a contraction of ‘co-adapted meme complex’, though apparently Speel wasn’t the first to use it). Blackmore makes it clear in several passages in The Meme Machine that she sticks to the original Dawkins definition of ‘meme’, as applying equally to all kinds of beliefs, including those comprising science and technology. For example she writes that “Science, like religion, is a mass of memeplexes,” and “Science is fundamentally a process; a set of methods for trying to distinguish true memes from false ones” (p. 202). So Blackmore accepts that a meme, if it is a belief about a matter of fact, is either true or false, that we can take steps to distinguish true memes from false memes, and that science is composed of memeplexes and therefore of memes.
Now, someone might try to defend Andy West as follows: If West wants to define ‘memes’ and ‘memeplexes’ in a way that differs from Dawkins’s and Blackmore’s original definitions, who is Steele to say that he shouldn’t? True, there may be some verbal confusion caused by the fact that some kinds of cultural transmission are excluded from the memes, and not given an alternative name. But that could be taken care of by clearly distinguishing memes from non-memes.
Unfortunately, however, West never gives a clear explanation of what separates memes from non-memes or memeplexes from other assemblages of memes. And no such distinction can seriously be made—not one that will withstand a few seconds’ scrutiny.
The division of belief systems into those which appeal to reason and evidence and those which do not is a hopeless task. If there are two incompatible points of view, x and y, then an adherent of x will always say that y does not appeal to reason and evidence, or at least does so to a lesser extent than x. And an advocate of y will say the same, only reversing the terms.
Climate Catastrophism and the Actual Climate
West intimates that climate catastrophism has little or nothing to do with the facts of what’s going on in the climate (pp. 1–5), and this is no doubt one reason he has for viewing it as a memeplex in his derogatory sense. But CAGW adherents would not agree with this judgment. They would say that climate skeptics, including West, are the ones who disregard the facts. I disagree with CAGW and agree with West on this issue, in fact I go further, maintaining (as West explicitly does not) that CAGW has been refuted. But the point is that people like West, seeking to distinguish memeplexes from other belief systems, are always going to classify as memeplexes those belief systems they disavow or dislike, and refuse to classify as memeplexes those belief systems they agree with. In other words, once we set out to distinguish memeplexes along these lines, we can’t classify CAGW as a memeplex without swallowing a whole chunk of the arguments of its opponents. Discussing CAGW as West does becomes a way of denigrating it without addressing its arguments. It can easily become an excuse for ad hominem attacks, masquerading as study of memetic processes.
Where have we come across this kind of thing before? Most conspicuously in the case of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysts had the habit of diagnosing their opponents instead of addressing their arguments. If you read Ernest Jones’s life of Freud, you’ll notice how everyone who had a falling out with Freud turned out to be seriously mentally ill, which explains why they adopted the theoretical positions they did. There was therefore no need for Jones to outline these positions or to offer a refutation of these positions.
Perhaps someone might think that the distinction between memeplexes and non-memeplexes can be made by asserting that memeplexes are insulated from reality. Perhaps West is gesturing in this direction with his claim that CAGW has little to do with what’s going on in the climate. I agree with the gist of West’s claim—that catastrophists tend to give insufficient weight to the many observations which appear to go against their theory. But we need to be careful here.
It’s characteristic of scientific theories—virtually all of them—that their adherents tend to brush aside apparently contrary considerations in a way that seems arbitrary to dissenters from the theory or to outsiders to the field. There are many examples of this phenomenon in the history of those scientific theories that we all consider acceptable. For instance, when Pasteur revived, reformulated, and corroborated the theory of infection by germs, numerous experts said something along the lines of: ‘We can see that this theory must obviously be false, because we observe that when several people are exposed to the same conditions, and therefore presumably the same germs, some become sick and some don’t.’ Refutation by observations (or more strictly, by reports of observations) is not necessarily simple or straightforward. The theory tends to dominate the observations, selecting and interpreting them in a distinctive way. When West says that memeplexes “manipulate perceptions” (p. 1), he may not realize that this applies to all theories without exception. This is why there can be paradigm shifts. This is why someone as clever and well-read as Paul Feyerabend can advocate ‘epistemological anarchism’ or ‘anything goes’ as the rule for science.
Can we really say that CAGW has nothing to do with what’s going on in the climate? Surely there would have been no CAGW if global mean surface temperature had not shown a net increase over the past hundred years. If we look at the reaction of CAGW proponents to the ‘Pause’—the fact that global mean surface temperature has not risen in the past ten to thirty years (depending on your favorite dataset)—we certainly do not observe that they are unconcerned about it. They manifestly see it as something troublesome that needs to be accounted for. When the Pause started, many of them denied that it was happening. When this denial became impossible, many of them said it could not possibly last much longer: just wait a year or two, and then you’ll see a big spike in temperature! Wrong again. As the Pause has continued, they have responded in various ways, many of these mutually incompatible. They’re visibly troubled about it. And they will no doubt become increasingly troubled with every year that the Pause continues, especially if we see statistically significant cooling (as many skeptical climate scientists predict). So I think it’s simplistic to say that CAGW is sealed off from what’s actually happening in the climate.
To avoid misunderstanding, I should point out that even without the Pause, the predictions of the CAGW crowd have always been for more warming than has actually occurred. In every case, reality has turned out to be cooler than what they confidently asserted would happen (or, in cases where they gave a wide range of probabilities, the subsequent observations have been at the extreme low end of the range, never close to the central values). Thus, even without the Pause, observations have always told against their theory. And if warming were to resume next year at the rate of the late twentieth century, the new observations would continue to contradict the predictions of the IPCC models. But the Pause is such a contemptuous rebuff by Mother Nature, and something the broader public can so easily grasp, that the CAGW zealots cannot escape the awareness that their theory has landed in deep doo-doo.
West Forays into Functionalism
West asks: “what are memeplexes for?” (p. 18). He thinks it very likely that they must be ‘for’ something. They can’t just be a precipitate of human activity but have to possess a function or telos, if not a purpose.
So he tries to answer this question. His answer is that memes are “for” benefiting society, and we can show this by tracing some of the benefits which various memeplexes have conferred on society.
His chief example is pyramid building in ancient Egypt. Pyramid building used up a lot of resources and yet Egyptian society was successful by various measures. Given that the burden of pyramid building was so huge, West reasons, “it seems highly likely that the overall social payback must be very positive indeed, in order to offset or exceed the huge efforts involved” (p. 20). He assumes that every major social phenomenon must pay. He then checks off some of the indirect apparent benefits that resulted from the building of pyramids. Belief in retribution for bad deeds in the afterlife encouraged altruistic behavior, which contributed to social cohesion and therefore helped society (p. 19).
The logistics of pyramid building “might well have been the catalyst that triggered the formation of the Egyptian super-power civilization from pre-existing tribes, with all that a civilization implies: central administration, writing, a managed food-supply and economy, a large and formally organized professional army, . . .” And so on (pp. 20–21).
West goes on to offer a more general social benefit, maintaining that it causes difficulties for society if people’s beliefs are too dissimilar, and that therefore something that makes beliefs more uniform will be helpful. So societies with strong memeplexes will tend to outcompete societies without them (p. 23).
Where have we heard this before? In Durkheim, of course, and in a whole brood of social anthropologists and sociologists, most conspicuously people like Bronislaw Malinowski. This theory is called functionalism, and it embodies certain misconceptions. (Functionalist theories are not all the same; Durkheim’s functionalism for instance holds that practices are functional inasmuch as they adjust to equilibrium, which is not guaranteed to be nice. We don’t need to pursue these differences here.)
West supposes that if a memeplex exists, it must be because it confers some benefit. (In his case, the benefit seems to be increasing the strength and power of the polity.) He then casts around for what this benefit might possibly be, and hits upon one or two imaginable ways in which the existence of this memeplex had helpful consequences for the population. But the initial question is misplaced. We will always be able to find good (or functional) consequences of any belief system (it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good), and there’s no reason to suppose that this explains the prevalence of that belief system, especially as these consequences may arise centuries after the beliefs have caught hold.
When the Egyptians were trying to secure their prospects in the afterlife by protecting their corpses, what selective mechanism could look ahead and foresee these remote consequences of the prevalence of such beliefs, encouraging them to proliferate and discouraging the alternatives (such as the belief that nothing of your personality survives in your corpse, and when you die that’s the end of you)? There’s no such mechanism. The prevalence of a belief cannot be properly explained by remote and unknown (to the believer) consequences of many people holding that belief.
West looks for a functionalist explanation of the prevalence of certain systems of belief, but such explanations are generally fallacious. This is not to deny the commonplaces of historical enquiry. A group of people may certainly become more or less successful because of some aspect of their beliefs. National Socialist beliefs led to the driving away from Germany of Jewish scientists and to such poor decisions as the refusal to activate Ukrainian nationalism against Moscow. Thus, National Socialist beliefs helped Germany to lose the war. In a famous example, Bertrand Russell maintained that one of the reasons early Christianity prevailed while Mithraism disappeared was that following Mithraism involved undue expense: you frequently had to find a live bull to slaughter. There’s no mystery about these kinds of explanations, and they do not imply functionalism.
Sometimes people may take deliberate notice of the consequences of belief systems, and this may affect their decisions. For example the patricians of imperial Rome applied certain rules of thumb about religious movements. One was that old religions (like Judaism) were to be warmly tolerated whereas new religions (like Christianity) were to be less tolerated. Another rule of thumb was that religious movements focused on following a particular person (again Christianity) were likely to be dangerous, since any such person or his designated successor would automatically become a rival to the emperor. Political leaders have always paid attention to the purely factual consequences (in their judgment) of various belief systems and have acted appropriately, to encourage or discourage those systems. This is not functionalism: in this case someone consciously recognizes the consequences of the belief systems and acts accordingly. The selective mechanism is deliberate, conscious choice by specific individuals. Both social institutions and belief systems evolve partly by cumulative rational selection, as opposed to blind selective processes.
There are also minor quibbles with West’s argument. For example, he tacitly assumes that building pyramids is an outgrowth of preoccupation with the afterlife. No doubt this is true, but it goes against his argument, because if pyramid building is explained by being a result of people’s preoccupation with the afterlife, then there’s no need to explain it by its impact on military organization and the like. We have an explanation: pyramid building arose because of preoccupation with the afterlife, end of story. And if, in the functionalist perspective, pyramid building is a burden, while encouragement of altruistic behavior is a benefit, then the most functional memeplex would be something that encouraged altruistic behavior without building huge stone structures. There’s no logical necessity that a belief system encouraging altruistic behavior must also encourage the building of huge stone structures. Furthermore, the building of huge stone structures clearly indicates that the pharaohs believed that something other than altruistic behavior (to wit, the building of huge stone structures) would benefit them in the afterlife. Therefore belief in the building of huge stone structures represents a denial of the exclusive importance of altruistic behavior: it’s an expression of people’s skepticism that altruistic behavior could be enough, and so it undermines the altruistic ethics which West claims pyramid building exists to promote.
What Are Memeplexes For?
What are memeplexes for? Strictly, this question is absurd. It’s like asking what the aurora borealis is for. The correct answer is that it is not for anything and could not possibly be for anything. Systems of belief do not exist for any purpose, except to assuage the believer’s thirst for truth. Nor do systems of belief exist because they perform any social function.
To bring out the absurdity of this kind of enquiry, consider the following example: Many story plots involve the ‘eternal triangle’ theme of a man’s romantic involvement with two women. What’s the social function of this fictional theme? In other words, what benefits does it confer on society, which benefits can account for the fact that it exists? The answer is that the prevalence of this literary theme, and of other common ‘dramatic situations’ arises automatically from certain basic, all-pervasive facts about human life. It is therefore simply an elementary misunderstanding to ask what it’s for. It’s just not ‘for’ anything and could not be ‘for’ anything.
Given a different interpretation, however, the question “What are memeplexes for?” can be answered simply and conclusively. Let’s restate the question. Why is it that humans have beliefs, especially enthusiastic beliefs to which they become fiercely devoted? And why do groups of beliefs have a tendency to clump together into systems of beliefs?
People have beliefs because they have an appetite to believe. This appetite is stronger than hunger, stronger than thirst, stronger than sex. It’s innate in the human makeup, ineradicable, and dictated by the genes. The human mind is so constructed that it must believe. A belief is taking something to be true. There is no such thing as believing something you think is untrue—this is a straightforward contradiction, because believing something is exactly equivalent to thinking it true. So, people’s appetite for belief always appears to them as (and is in fact) an appetite for the truth.
What’s the nature of this voracious, all-consuming appetite? It’s a demand to have the world make sense. What you believe is always what you think is true, and the demand that you come up with something you think is true (the reason you’re interested at all, so to speak) arises from the categorical imperative to be convinced of a theory about the world. This imperative is hardwired, it is observed in babies (recall Alison Gopnik et al., The Scientist in the Crib) and cannot be shut down except by unconsciousness.
To take the question back a stage further, why are babies born with such a fanatical, dogmatic, uncompromising conviction that the world absolutely must make sense? The answer to this is not obscure—because humans born with such a ferocious hunger for the truth do better at passing on their genes than humans born without any such appetite. Surely this is more or less what we would expect.
Why do beliefs clump together? Anyone trying to make sense of the world will come up with numerous beliefs, and these cannot always be isolated from each other. One reason is that we may have several beliefs about the same thing, and there is the possibility that such beliefs might be inconsistent. We automatically strive to remove inconsistency and harmonize our beliefs. If two of our beliefs are incompatible, we recognize that something is wrong; we feel uneasy and look for a way to make the incompatibility disappear. It’s impossible to believe anything without tacitly acknowledging the rudiments of logic. Just as the whole of arithmetic is implicit in the act of distinguishing two from one, so the whole of logic is implicit in holding that one belief is true and its denial is false.
Another reason is that beliefs are often useful to us, and where they are useful, they are often more useful if they are more general. It may be useful to believe that this tree will bear sweet fruit every summer, but it could be even more useful to believe that all trees with this shape of leaf will bear sweet fruit every summer.
As a child grows up, it will frequently have the experience of learning something that explains a lot, a single insight that puts a myriad of things in a different light, making more sense of them. Thus, the drive to believe automatically tends to encourage the appetite for beliefs of wide application, the limit being all-embracing beliefs which explain everything.
The existence of belief systems (or memeplexes) can be seen to follow automatically from innate factors in the human constitution. With the development of language and other media of communication, most of an individual’s beliefs come from the culture—from what other individuals say. We all believe that there are kangaroos in Australia and that it’s cold at the North Pole, even though most of us have never visited either place (or spent any time or effort investigating the plausibility of these tales we’ve been told). This doesn’t mean that we’re bound to believe everything ‘the culture’ (other people) tells us, though we very often do so until some acute problem makes us question a received belief.
I have given a brief account here of why belief leads to belief systems, without assuming that there is some genetic predisposition to embrace large systems of interlocking beliefs. But, of course, there certainly is some such predisposition, and more generally there is likely to be, not merely a genetically programmed drive to beliefs of wide generality, but a genetically programmed drive to hold certain kinds of general beliefs rather than others. Still the most brilliant stab at such a theory of how the mind strives to order its understanding of the world in a particular way is the identity theory of Émile Meyerson.
The Myth of Irrationality
I surmise that West subscribes to the common view that there are rational and irrational reasons or motivations for believing something. This misconception is criticized at length in Ray Scott Percival’s book, The Myth of the Closed Mind (2012). I believe that the main thrust of Percival’s argument is correct. West may think that adopting a memeplex is irrational. But adopting any belief system is never irrational—though it may sometimes be mistaken or even foolish. Humans just can’t help being rational; they are forever condemned to be rational.
The misconception that humans can believe things for irrational motives often arises from the tacit definition of ‘rationality’ as absence of error. Certainly, humans often commit errors; we all make mistakes. In fact, only a rational being can commit an error; the existence of error (in the strict sense) is proof of rationality. Errors can, as we know, be corrected, and very frequently are.
Some systems of belief are more passionate than others. You could put together all my beliefs about transportation in and around Chicago and call it a belief system. For example, my belief that I can get from the Loop to Logan Square in about half an hour by taking the Blue Line from any of several stations along Dearborn is one belief among thousands. If I had to revise some of these beliefs, it wouldn’t upset me very much.
Other belief systems involve a more visceral attachment. My belief in neo-Darwinian evolution, or in any major part of that theory such as genetics, could not be changed without an intellectual upheaval accompanied by emotional turmoil. I call this kind of belief system an enthusiastic belief system, and I maintain that enthusiastic belief systems, be they religious, philosophical, or scientific, all have common characteristics.
To mention a few: they all involve ‘confirmation bias’; once you accept the system you tend to interpret evidence so that it fits the system. They all dismiss or explain away apparent counter-instances with great facility. They all involve privileged texts (scriptures) and accredited spokespersons, which become imbued with authority. They all exhibit emotional attachment on the part of their adherents and strong feelings of aversion toward people who dispute the system. Attachment to a belief system is very much like attachment to a person; just as love is blind, so our attachment to the belief system makes us overlook its possible faults. All these features are just as much in evidence in belief systems we agree with as in belief systems we reject. In fact all these features are inevitable: science, no less than religion, could never have developed without them (as Percival makes clear).
Why We Should Resist the Temptation to Diagnose
People often disagree with each other. There are many competing and incompatible theories (I view any religious doctrine as a theory). This disagreement arises ineluctably (in human groups of more than a few hundred) because the world is big, complex, and messy and because individual humans are each equipped with nothing more than strip-maps of the world. When an adherent of one belief system encounters adherents of another belief system, there is a feeling of incredulity: surely they can’t possibly think that?
When we encounter a belief system we disagree with, we can criticize it. We can try to show that it is contrary to observed facts, or that it involves inconsistency and is therefore self-contradictory. We can also criticize it simply by finding flaws in some of the arguments in its favor. But having stated our criticisms of the belief system, we observe with amazement that its adherents do not instantly accept our arguments and abandon their belief system. They persist in their erroneous ways, by ignoring what we have said, or by misrepresenting what we have said, or by replying to what we have said with blatantly unsound counter-arguments. This is the age-old pattern of differing beliefs, in science just as much as in religion.
In this situation, it’s tempting to conclude that we have not done enough. Instead of simply refuting these people’s arguments, we may feel we need to try to show that their erroneous beliefs arise from some deep-seated disorder in their thinking. We then try to show that they are guilty of some kind of irrationality.
The temptation should always be resisted. Once we have stated the arguments against their position, and worked on improving these arguments, we just have to keep on restating them and wait for the penny to drop. The arguments against their position (assuming these arguments can’t for the moment be improved) are everything we could possibly have; there’s nothing more to be had.
Here we should remind ourselves of a couple of elementary points:
1. One and the same belief may be held by different people with different habits of thought, different epistemologies, and different methodologies. A true belief may be held for seriously defective reasons and a false belief may be held for impeccable reasons. Logically, there is a disjunction between the soundness of one’s thinking and the truth of one’s beliefs. We cannot validly reason from the unsoundness of someone’s thinking to the untruth of their beliefs, nor from the untruth of their beliefs to the unsoundness of their thinking, nor from the soundness of their thinking to the truth of their beliefs, not from the truth of their beliefs to the soundness of their thinking.
2. What applies to individual beliefs applies to systems of belief or memeplexes. One person may embrace a given memeplex because of meticulous analysis while another may embrace the same memeplex because of disturbed thinking, or seriously mistaken methodology (including uncritically accepting what he has heard another person say). That this is routinely so is a familiar fact. George Orwell famously pointed out that he believed the world was round and orbited the sun, but would be unable to mount a good defense of these beliefs against anyone (with a bit of astronomical knowledge) who disputed them.
Even if every single person who adheres to a particular memeplex does so for faulty reasons, it’s still possible that at any moment, someone may arrive at a defense of that very memeplex for different and sounder reasons.
If the adherents of a memeplex are in fact prey to some thinking disorder, this is immaterial to the merits of that memeplex, for one can arrive at a correct position by disordered thinking or at an incorrect position by impeccable thinking. So the only relevance of their thinking disorder would be that in this case it led them to espouse a faulty position, and once again we find that all that matters is the faultiness of the position and not in the slightest degree the type of thinking that happened to cause any individual to accept it. The position can only be shown to be faulty by direct criticism, never by diagnosing the way its proponents think.
Science has always involved passionate attachment to enthusiastic belief systems. As Blackmore says, “False theories thrive within science as well as within religion, and for many of the same reasons” (The Meme Machine, p. 202). In itself, this is perfectly normal. Fiercely clinging to some theory after it has been shown to contradict experience is a human trait (and according to Percival a necessary and productive human trait) and it occurs in science just as much as in other institutional areas.
Sometimes, under certain conditions, the situation gets bad, as with Lysenkoism and CAGW. These monumental follies arose because the zealots used political power to protect themselves from criticism by stigmatizing their actual critics and intimidating potential critics. Just as competition is required to keep business socially optimal and nothing else can, so debate, the competition of ideas, keeps enquiry on the track of truth, and nothing else can. But monopoly enfeebles the monopolist—“power stupefies”—and ensures that when the memeplex falls, it crashes and burns with spectacular suddenness.
If general cultural conditions favored it, episodes like Lysenkoism or CAGW could actually destroy science. But conditions, though worsening, are nowhere near that bad. Science will survive, at least for the next century or so. CAGW will soon be a thing of the past, a paroxysm of ideological craziness that we will look back upon with amused fascination.
Naturally, the bare bones of the environmentalist belief system will grow different flesh. Just as global warming supplanted acid rain, so some new scare will supplant global warming. (Always eager to help out, I have nominated the use of electronic devices causing a switch in the Earth’s magnetic field.) Environmentalism holds that human activity is destroying the planet, and therefore economic growth must be crippled and millions of Third World babies allowed to die. The specific evil activity which is destroying the planet can be changed, although possibly the environmentalist loss of credibility due to the thoroughness of the discrediting of CAGW will be so immense that the entire environmentalist belief system will be weakened for a while. If so, that will be good news for humankind and especially its poorer half.