In preparation for episode 037 of the Argument Ninja Podcast I’ve been reading and taking notes on four items.
The first is Francis Fukuyama’s 2018 book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
. That’s in the tradition of political philosophy and psychology that I’ve been talking about in the last couple of episodes (Jonathan Haidt, Karen Stenner, Eric Kaufmann). I'll be talking about Fukuyama's position in episode 037.
And then I have three items that come from a very different intellectual tradition — the tradition of thinking about human culture as a product of evolutionary processes, so-called “cultural evolution
The first of these items is a journal article co-authored by Dan Kahan titled “Culturally Antagonistic Memes and the Zika Virus: An Experimental Test”. This paper introduces the concept a “culturally antagonistic meme
”, and how they can interact with various cognitive biases to attach a scientific or technological policy issue to a particular political or cultural worldview, in such a way that an issue that was once politically neutral, now becomes politically polarization
(a “liberal” or “conservative” issue). I’ll be talking through the main argument of this paper in episode 037.
This article introduces a very specific theoretical concept, a “culturally antagonistic meme”. To understand it properly you need to frame it against the general concept of a “meme”. In modern social media lingo, “memes” are identified with humorous images or videos or pieces of text that are copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users.
But the word “meme
” was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene
, to describe a unit of culture
— an idea, a belief, or a pattern of behavior — that is “hosted” in the minds of individual people, and which can reproduce itself in the sense of jumping from the mind of one person to the mind of another. So a meme
, in this sense, is understood by analogy with a gene
in genetics. For Dawkins, genes are the fundamental units of biological evolution, because they’re the things that replicate and pass on heritable information from one generation to the next. Dawkins was trying to fit the evolution of culture into this model, the model of Darwinian evolution, where the thing that varies, replicates and is selected is the meme, rather than the gene. Modern internet memes can be viewed as instances of this more general concept of a meme.
Dawkins himself was interested in applying this model to explain the phenomenon of religious beliefs and the various characteristics of organized religions. In the wake of The Selfish Gene
, several different research programs arose that tried to develop a theory of cultural “memetics
”, an approach to modeling cultural evolution where the meme concept plays a central role.
Why am I mentioning all this? Because (i) this is the background I’ll have to present in the podcast episode if I want to explain the argument of the “culturally antagonistic memes” paper; and (iI) I want to make a more general point about the most effective ways of building knowledge.
The other two items on my reading list are books on the broader topic of cultural evolution. The first is a 2011 book by Alex Mesoudi called Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences. And the second is a 2017 book by Kevin Laland called Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. This book recently won a bunch of prizes. My sense is that, within this field of cultural evolution, it’s being treated a bit like Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 Thinking: Fast and Slow, which summarizes many decades of research on cognitive biases by following the sequence of Kahneman’s career and the issues he was writing about.
Why am I reading these books? Is it just because I’m interested in the topic? Or do I think all this background is necessary to properly explain the arguments of the antagonistic memes paper?
It’s a bit of both. And it’s a bit more than that.
One of my goals with these podcast episodes is to zoom in on specific issues — in this case, theories of polarization — and then zoom out and talk about what general critical thinking principles we can highlight, or apply, or develop, through looking at these cases. So these episodes really serve two functions: one, to learn something useful about an important topic; and two, to learn something more general about how to become a better critical thinker.
We Overestimate How Much We Know
Last episode (036) I talked about the problem of estimating how much we really understand about the causes of complex social phenomena. Even after we’ve understood one or two of the most widely discussed theories on the subject, there’s still a question about how much we still don’t know. How many different approaches to understanding the phenomenon are out there? How much of the “argument space” around the topic is still to be discovered?
The claim I made last episode was that, with some exposure to theories and models that we think we understand pretty well, we tend to overestimate how much of the bigger picture we can see; or equivalently, we tend to underestimate how much more there is still to learn. There are some compelling in-principle reasons for why this happens, but it’s a conclusion that I’ve also arrived at through my own personal experience over many years as a teacher and a researcher.
Multiple Mental Models
Another critical thinking lesson that I want to introduce in this podcast series is the importance of mental models as tools for reasoning about the world, and the practice of acquiring multiple mental models if we want to develop a broader and deeper understanding of the world.
As I'm using the term, a mental model is a conceptual framework that helps us organize and interpret information, that is part of the broader process of "sense-making" that we're always engaged in, consciously or subconsciously.
(In the examples discussed in episode 036, we're introduced to a family of mental models that highlight the role that variation in individual moral psychology plays explaining cultural conflict.)
Multiple models are also important if we want to avoid the errors that we’re prone to make, that are due to looking at the world through only one lens. So mental models can play an important debiasing role in addition to functioning as a key tool for building the kind of knowledge that supports genuine critical thinking.
I’ll be talking a lot more about these issues in my Argument Ninja Dojo course on building knowledge (my working title: “The Way of Knowledge: How to Know What You’re Talking About”).
So, to tie this back to my reading list, the reason why I’m looking at these books on cultural evolution is because I’m trying to reconstruct one of the branches of the argument matrix dealing with the causes of social polarization, and specifically the branch that tries to model social change as a type of evolutionary process.
That article on culturally antagonistic memes is like a sub-branch of a sub-branch. If you work backwards along the branch, you’ll encounter the broader theoretical principles that underlie this particular family of models, and you’ll also thereby gain access to a whole branch of other models that employ these principles. So we can see how this application of the meme concept is part of a larger theoretical tradition that we can call “memetic” theories of culture and cultural change.
Fleshing Out the Argument Matrix
But what I really want to know is, where do these memetic theories of culture fit within the broader intellectual tradition of cultural evolution? What does the landscape of cultural evolutionary models look like? Because it’s a safe bet that the memetic tradition is just one hub within a larger network of evolutionary models.
That is indeed the case. These books on cultural evolution give a bigger picture overview of the whole field, so that now I can situate my understanding of memetic theories within this landscape.
And when you do this kind of intellectual archeology, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter arguments for and against the memetic tradition. Because clearly, some researchers have chosen to pursue different models of cultural evolution. So you’re getting a critical perspective on the debates surrounding the tradition, and not just a summary overview of the main ideas.
This is why I’m reading these books. This is a way of building out my personal argument matrix surrounding the topic of cultural change. And as a result I’ll be better prepared to pass on some of this critical perspective in the podcast.
A Tool for Building Knowledge: Develop a Matrix of Models
One of the ways that I’m going to suggest we think about the project of building out our background knowledge, is to combine
the argument matrix concept and the mental models concept—to yield the concept of a matrix of models
The models that are developed within scientific disciplines often have a natural hierarchical structure, where different lower-level models can be seen as instances of a higher-level model type. And the nesting can be many levels deep, like Russian matryoshka dolls.
Reconstructing the history of ideas around a concept will also yield a hierarchical structure, which will typically combine the tree structure that results from differentiation along a historical lineage, and the tree structure that results from the nested classification of theories and models from most general to most specific.
If we can represent our understanding in a way that allow us to conceptually navigate not only a matrix of arguments
, but also a matrix of models associated with those arguments
... well, that's a very powerful tool for thinking and reasoning about the world.
This conversation naturally leads into a discussion of the nature of models as tools for reasoning. I have a whole section on the epistemology of models and modeling
in my Vocabulary of Science
course, which is available in the Argument Ninja Dojo, and which is relevant to these issues. I won’t get into that here, but please check them out if you’re interested.
Here I only want to make the point that these theoretical case studies that I’m exploring in the podcast—models of polarization from the social sciences, models from the natural sciences, etc.— are designed to help illustrate a broader thesis about the way that knowledge is organized and represented in the sciences, and the best strategies for acquiring the kind of knowledge that supports genuine critical thinking.
You’ll be hearing more about all this in the course content that I’m developing for the Argument Ninja Dojo.