by | Dec 13, 2008

This post is a spillover from the discussion on a recent post which lost its direction.


  1. Stevo

    I agree with nearly all of that, but I think you’re misinterpreting what ‘memes’ are or are intended to be. Some people might try to use them that way, but it’s the same sort of non-sequitur as claiming Darwinism implies Eugenics.

    Memes are just another word for ideas, that spread by the normal processes we’re all familiar with – mainly that people think they’re good ideas.

    Dawkins was trying to explain the arcana of natural selection by relating them to a familiar analogy. His point was that natural selection would apply to anything that got replicated, where the content influenced its probability of survival, and copying was good but not quite perfect. He had spent half a book talking about how genes do this, but most people are generally unfamiliar with the technical biological details, and many presume natural selection is also very technical and specific to biology. All he was initially trying to get across was that it’s a general process, and applies to anything that can reproduce copies of itself and influences the probability of doing so.

    For example, hypothesis generation and falsification in Science is a good example, where ideas are generated, tested, and the bad ones die, while the good ones spread. Scientific theories evolve, and their marvellous achievements today are the result not just of the brilliance of individual scientists, but the accumulation of the efforts of generations of scientists. “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” as Newton said.

    It’s not a magic method or anything especially clever; the original aim was to take the magic out of genetics. It is intended to make Darwinian evolution by natural selection a trite statement of the obvious.

    However, the idea has been seized upon as an illuminating perspective on cultural transmission, and extended far beyond what Dawkins originally intended. One such idea, the one that has generated a lot of the controversy about memes, is the carry-across from the cases of genetic information that prospers not by being better at ensuring survival of the organism, but by taking direct measures to get itself copied. The primary example is the virus, which is essentially a bit of code that says only “copy me!” There is parasitic genetic code that works by killing off rivals, that pastes extra copies of itself around the genome, that hitches a ride on the more honest success of other genes, that bypasses or blocks immune systems, but which does not itself contribute to the success of the organism.

    The parallel drawn is with ideologies, that succeed not by being great ideas, but by devoting a large part of their content to the necessity and ‘virtue’ of spreading the idea, by eliminating and isolating its followers from rival ideas, by re-writing history and falsely claiming great achievements, and by bypassing safety measures (civil liberties) designed to limit the means people can use to achieve their ends.

    The atheist Dawkins obviously saw an immediate analogy with religions (whose adherents have generated most of the misinformation about them in counter-attack), but it is far more widely applicable. An absolute classic case of this is the situation with AGW environmentalist activism, which spreads not so much because the science is correct and convincing, but by controlling the media, by excluding rival theories from debate, and by hijacking the well-deserved reputation of Science.

    To the extent that you claim AGW-environmentalism succeeds not by intrinsic merit but because it advocates taking control of the media and the education system, and silencing rival points of view, you are putting forwards an almost identical view. You are saying it succeeds only because it devotes itself to the means of propagating itself. You do not (I assume) believe AGW-believers are mindless zombies.

    The concepts of memes and parasitical memes do indeed apply to things like the hockeystick graph. There is no implication of automatism or determinism in the idea. ‘Memes’ are simply a different perspective on ‘ideas’, and ‘parasitical memes’ a perspective on ‘ideology and propaganda’, and the parallels between the methods used by viruses and ideologies is simply used to explain how ideologies can prosper despite being untrue and unproductive. (It’s also worth remembering that most memes, like genes, are not parasitical and succeed by being beneficial.)
    The value judgements one applies to all that are a separate issue entirely.

  2. Editors


    Our posts are long enough without a full exposition of meme theory! What Monbiot intended – what he gave in fact – were two accounts of the exhange of ideas which reduce the subjectivity of ‘deniers’ – they are blind, unthinking, and wrong.

    What was intended by any of the proponents of memetics is perhaps a different question. Pot-smoking, acid-dropping Blackmore rules out subjectivity in her account of memes, and Dennett too appears to say that there’s no such thing as the subject. But they argue that subjectivity is an illusion by deferring the question to a mechanistic process that lacks substance in exactly the same way that the cartesian subject lacks material substance. Can one isolate a ‘meme’ or its action any easier than one can isolate the cartesian subject? What are the necessary characteristics of either? Aren’t they at least as likely as each other?

    Dawkins too, rules out the idea that people are active in making their own decisions. Shortly after 9/11, for example, he spoke of the terrorists being driven by memes which turned them into ‘human missiles’. Dawkins speaks too soon. He knows nothing about the terrorists to make such a statement. We don’t mean here that there is a possiblity that they were driven to commit the act out of frustration at their inability to express their grievance in any other way, and deserve our sympathy. Far from it. We must assume that they were aware of their actions, and were committed to them, or we let them off the hook.

    Our argument about the predominance of the environmental message is about the establishment’s vacuity, and its disconnection from the public, and its crisis of legitimacy. We beleive that these things explain its tendency to clothe itself in Green. It also explains its tendency to mechanistic and deterministic accounts of humanity. It legitimises a managerial, and authoritarian style of governance if you can say that people aren’t capable of making decisions.

    If memetics does not imply automatism and determinism, then how could agency be consistent with a ‘meme’s eye view’ in the way that genetics can be understood from the gene’s perspective? Granted, weak memetics may conceivably have use, if only as a metaphor, but it is so diluted that it is made redundant by other approaches which have proven to be far more productive: sociology, history, English Literature, geography and all the humanities for example.

  3. Stevo

    I didn’t particularly want to get into the religion-vs-atheism debate. Just because atheists sometimes misuse the term doesn’t mean you should. The rancour of the religious wars has poisoned the understanding of the term for the participants.

    Monbiot’s intention in using the word is to say that these sceptical ideas are being dropped into the discourse with the intention that they be propagated. He’s making a point about the cynical intentions of the originators of these ideas, not the stupidity of the people who pass them on.

    It wasn’t my intention to divert off the climate topic, but since we’re already there…

    Memes have little to do with the debate between Dualism and the mechanistic mind. They may well be an appealing concept to believers in mechanism, and often raised at the same time in discussions about the philosophy of the mind, but they add no weight to either side of the Dualism debate.

    Some examples of memes are easily isolated; in most cases the boundaries are fuzzier. A meme is simply any idea that replicates (is passed on from person to person) as a unit, whose success in doing so depends at least partly on its content, and for which copying is good but not perfect.

    I’m not sure which Dawkins comment you’re talking about. There was a letter in the Guardian on 15/11/2001 where he talks about religion persuading people to become human missiles, but memes are not mentioned. He says there it was done with the promise of life after death. In his essay ‘Time to stand up’ he gives several possible reasons for the terrorists actions, none of them to do with memes or automatism, and is instead criticising society’s deference to religion as having given shelter to such ideologies. Do you have a more precise reference?

    I don’t believe the success of the environmental message has much to do with the Establishment. Rather, it is the other way round – the environmental message appeals to people, and the Establishment have tried to harness it in order to access some of that appeal; as an attempt to re-connect their own designs with the public. The Establishment may also have created fertile ground for it as a result of their policies, but not I think intentionally.

    In understanding genetics from the gene’s perspective, remember that half the process is outside the control of the genes – it is the environment that decides which live and which die, that controls where evolution ends up. The theory of natural selection places no constraints on how this happens – it only notes that it does. A meme’s success likewise depends on its environment. Do people like the idea? Is it useful? Will people choose to support it? Is it easily passed on? Does it conflict with stronger, more predatory ideas? And there is of course a large element of luck. None of that excludes agency. Agents pick or reject ideas based on the idea’s merits, and on their own preferences. The ideas that survive tend to be the ones the agents like to pick.

    Genes can work with agents too – selective breeding of e.g. crop plants has picked out traits that people have chosen.

    Memetics is no grand body of knowledge on the level of the whole of history or geography, but it really doesn’t have to be. It’s a cute idea; one small bridge between two areas of knowledge, that allows developments in one to inform gaps in the other. There are many mathematical developments in population biology that could usefully inform the rather unmathematical sociologists, and the easier, familiar concepts of sociology can be used to make abstruse effects in evolutionary theory more intuitively comprehensible. It is useful. It isn’t a revolution.

  4. Editors


    We think you’re being a little naive about Monbiot’s argument about people who fail, in his view, to respond to ecological moral imperatives. He expounds George Marshall’s view that “people are not persuaded by information”. What clearer indication do you need that he is diminishing the subjectivity of such people?

    You say that “Memes have little to do with the debate between Dualism and the mechanistic mind … they add no weight to either side of the Dualism debate”. This is true in so far as memes are weightless, in exactly the way that that Descartes’ soul-substance is weightless. Our point was to point out that memetics is as plausible, not to defend Descartes’ conception of the subject (and nor to take the discussion into that territory, though it is interesting). We do think that subjective agency is worth defending though.

    Although we were speaking at cross purposes, it’s worth pointing out that various conceptions of memes do have consequences for dualism. Susan Blackmore in the Meme Machine argues that,

    “… all human actions, whether conscious or not, come from complex interactions between memes, genes, and their products, in complicated environments. The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not ‘have’ consciousness, and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating. There is no truth to the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Since this is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will.”

    Dennett asks in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,

    “But if I am nothing over and above some complex system of interactions between my body and the memes that infest it, what happens to personal responsibility? How could I be accountable for my misdeeds, or honoured for my triumphs, if I am not captain of my vessel? Where is the autonomy I need to act with free will?”

    He goes on to explore the idea of autonomy, meaning ‘self-control’, describing a spacecraft capable of guiding itself to a remote planet, where it is used by aliens for their purposes, seemingly to subvert the craft’s ‘autonomy’. He then asks us to consider symbionts/parasites, which he compares to a ‘celibacy meme’ in observers of certain religions.

    “…our selves have been created out of the interplay of memes exploiting and redirecting the machinery Mother Nature has given us. My brain harbours the memes for celibacy and chastity (I couldn’t write about them otherwise), but they never managed to get into the driver’s seat in me. I do not identify with them. My brain also harbours the meme for fasting or dieting, and I wish I could get it more often into the driver’s seat (so that I could more wholeheartedly diet), but for one reason or another, the coalitions of memes that would incorporate the meme for dieting into my whole “heart” seldom form a government with long-term stability. No one meme rules anybody; what makes the person he or she is are the coalitions of memes that govern – that play the long term roles in determining which decisions are made along the way.”

    He goes on to say that there are two ways out for people wishing to reject this Darwinianism; Cartesian substance dualism, or otherwise to claim that the brain works in ‘ways that defy scientific analysis’. Either way, Dennett’s conception of memes has consequences for, and it counterposed to, Cartesian duality, duality generally, and the subject. Moreover, given that he recognises that ‘the search for testable hypotheses of memetics is still in its infancy’, he offers us no more than a choice between an untested (and as yet untestable) hypothesis, and a rejection of the scientific method. The unfairness of this heavily value-laden test notwithstanding, it is no basis to reject subjectivity. ‘Cogito ergo sum’ is a statement of which we can be more confident than any scientific proposition, after all.

    You then say that ‘A meme is simply any idea that replicates (is passed on from person to person) as a unit’. But we already have a word for that. You could make just as much sense if you had cut your sentence short: ‘A meme is simply any idea’. We’ve learned nothing that wasn’t already captured in the word ‘idea’. In the final edition of the Journal of Memetics, which began in 1997, and ended in 2005, Bruce Edmonds wrote,

    “The fact is that the closer work has been to the core of memetics, the less successful it has been. The central core, the meme-gene analogy, has not been a wellspring of models and studies which have provided “explanatory leverage” upon observed phenomena. Rather, it has been a short-lived fad whose effect has been to obscure more than it has been to enlighten. I am afraid that memetics, as an identifiable discipline, will not be widely missed.”

    On its own terms, the fact that the Journal of Memetics failed to thrive reflects the limited potential of the perspective to yield insight.

    You are right that Dawkins doesn’t discuss memes in the article. But it is not unreasonable to look at his ideas as coming from the same place. Religion drove the terrorists into the towers, in his view. “Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.” This is sheer nonsense. The unsettled politics of the region go back well before the rise of political Islam, and before even the politics of oil, as was suggested by AC Grayling in a discussion we had with him here. It was an important area in the time of the British Empire as a route to India. Later, it was important in the Cold War as a nexus of Europe, the East, and Africa. These historical factors are overlooked by Dawkins’ shallow approach. The biological metaphor encourages an ahistorical perspective. In this sense, it is not only not useful, it is damaging, and far from a ‘cute idea’.

    You continue: “I don’t believe the success of the environmental message has much to do with the Establishment. Rather, it is the other way round – the environmental message appeals to people…”

    As we have pointed out in many previous posts, the environmental movement has entirely failed to establish a political movement which appeals to people at all. It is characterised by its unpopular message and elitism.

  5. Stevo

    OK, I’ll try to take this point by point.

    1. Monbiot makes several arguments, making several points. In one, he attacks the cynical intentions of the originators of sceptical ideas. In another, he attacks what he sees as the consensus-based belief of sceptics by citing Marshall. The two are not necessarily related. The paragraph mentioning memes is quite clearly talking about the activities of the “professional deniers”.

    Also, neither an evidential nor a social basis for belief supports subjectivity. Subjectively, I would say my beliefs are not deterministically controlled by the external evidence either.

    2. I’m tempted to ask what makes you think Descartes’ soul-substance is weightless, but that might take us too far afield.

    Cartesian Dualism has a variety of serious philosophical problems to do mainly with the nature of the physical interface between mind and matter. Memes are simply another word for “idea”, that emphasises their propagative properties. “Ideas” exist and have to be explained in both Physicalist and Dualist models of the mind, and the mechanisms by which they spread and survive are (seen at a high level) identical. The existence and validity of memes in no way contradicts Dualism. It’s difficulties are elsewhere.

    3. Blackmore and Dennet are including memes as component parts of the mechanisms of the mind, but their reasons for doing so are not meme-specific. Had they replaced the word with “ideas” or “beliefs”, the content would have been the same. You’re not claiming that the concepts of “ideas” or “beliefs” have consequences for Dualism, are you?

    4. As a minor philosophical side-issue, Dennett asks “How could I be accountable for my misdeeds, or honoured for my triumphs, if I am not captain of my vessel?” It’s worth noting that informed choice is not a prerequisite for accountability in some moral systems. For example, Adam and Eve are punished for an act committed before they had knowledge of good and evil. Islam states that Allah is the sole cause of everything, including our belief or disbelief. In other jurisdictions, ignorance of the law is considered no defence. Some varieties of divine law judge actions, not intentions. Modern Western morality judges intentions, and I think rightly so, I’m just saying it’s not axiomatic. That may be relevant to the question of whether free will bears on particular religious truths.

    5. Dennett’s discussion on coalitions of memes fighting over the driver’s seat does approach the way you describe their position. But I could as easily cast the inner conflict in Dualist terms. Even saints feel the desire to sin, at the same time as the desire not to. Which urge is the real “them”? And who does the other urge belong to?

    Both Blackmore and Dennett explain their Physicalist viewpoints using the word “meme”, but not in any sense that relies essentially on its meaning. Had they used “belief”, it would work as well.

    6. There are testable hypotheses of memetics. The easiest is that memes that code for things like evangelism should be more common than their merits otherwise would suggest. A simple experiment with chain letters can test that. But it’s an obvious and simplistic hypothesis, compared to the sophisticated results we have for genes. That’s what he means by the theory being in its infancy.

    7. Yes, “A meme is simply any idea” does have a lot to be said for it. If I said “A belief is simply any idea” and claimed thereby that “belief” was an empty concept, unworthy of study, would you accept that?

    The words emphasise different aspects. “Idea” emphasises the semantic or representational aspects. “Belief” emphasises the process by which we judge ideas before accepting them, and how we use them in decisions. “Meme” emphasises how and why they are propagated from mind to mind, and the properties that determine their survival.

    8. “…coming from the same place” is a bit loose for me. And whether religion is the underlying source of such actions is a different question to whether a person’s actions are determined by their religion.

    9. Dawkins is somewhat more apologetic than I would be regarding Religion being the underlying source of the “divisiveness”. That culture of conflict dates back nearly to the very origins of Islam, to the words and acts of the prophet at Medina. Jihad fi sabil Allah, the intention of which is to bring the whole world under Muslim rule, by force if necessary, is built into the very bones of Islam. It is not some modern political aberration, but as old and orthodox as can be.

    The modern situation is complex, with subtleties to do with the role of the Caliph, whether a hudna may be said to exist, and individual versus communal obligations, and it is not clear how many modern Muslims actually believe in what their Religion says they must believe and do. But the terrorist Jihad is unquestionably driven by orthodox Religion. Those who claim otherwise are either ignorant or lying.

    This is a particular difficulty for modern Christians for who “religion” has become synonymous with “moral goodness”. They have nowhere in their conceptual framework to slot a religion some of whose aims and methods are evil.

    All the double-talk that results as they try to square that circle is another major cause of Dawkins’ ire. It’s not just atheists who are unhappy about it, either.

    I accept that in our society such views are still taboo, and you will probably not be happy that I’ve expressed them here. But should you wish to challenge me on their truth, I’ll be happy to oblige based on original Islamic sources.

    10. If the environmental movement hadn’t established some degree of popularity and acceptance, I don’t think I’d have to argue the case against it so often. I quote Julian Simon or Bjorn Lomborg, and people simply look incredulous, and worse, clearly consider it evidence of a moral defect for me to take such views seriously. (And they can’t all be members of the Establishment elite.) To dislike environmental charities is like hating motherhood and apple pie. They will object to many of the extremes taken by the Deep Greens, but a lot of their milder positions and beliefs are widely accepted, even popular.

    People like to feel virtuous, they feel vaguely guilty about being prosperous, and everyone wants to heroically save the world (so long as it doesn’t cost them too much). The idea has a lot of appeal.

    The government’s version of it has a lot less appeal, but that’s not quite the same thing.

  6. Editors

    Steve, on your points.

    1. a) Monbiot makes two, very similar arguments, both of which undermine subjectivity of non-believers, the first weakly, via memes, the second, strongly via the claim that people do not respond to information. The fact that Monbiot describes himself as a biological determinist ought to stop you attempting a defence of his biological metaphor against criticism that it is deterministic.

    b) “Also, neither an evidential nor a social basis for belief supports subjectivity.”

    Is it necessary to have an account of the mechanism of subjectivity to value it? The point is about ideas which undermine it and their moral and political consequences which also lack substance. In other words, the subject deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    2. a) The soul substance has no weight because it is not extended. The original comment was intended as something of a joke, or play on your words. Perhaps it got lost in the forensic translation. Maybe it just wasn’t very funny.

    b) See the above point about giving the benefit of the doubt to the subject.

    3. “Blackmore and Dennet are including memes as component parts of the mechanisms of the mind, but their reasons for doing so are not meme-specific.”

    Of course they are, according to their definition of memes.

    Dennett: “But if I am nothing over and above some complex system of interactions between my body and the memes…”

    Blackmore: “all human actions, whether conscious or not, come from complex interactions between memes… “

    Would any definition of memes that meant anything (other than ‘idea’) satisfy you?

    “Had they replaced the word with “ideas” or “beliefs”, the content would have been the same.”

    Then ‘meme’ is no more meaningful than ‘idea’.

    5. a) You could indeed frame Dennett’s conception of memes in dualistic terms, which is the point made in the discussion about isolating the meme being equivalent to isolating the Cartesian subject. The difference is that memetics is an attempt to naturalise the action of the (now blind) subject, with the biological metaphor.

    b) “but not in any sense that relies essentially on its meaning. Had they used “belief”, it would work as well.”

    So the word ‘meme’ has no special meaning, again. It is redundant.

    6. “There are testable hypotheses of memetics.”

    Not (in the case you offer) while there is the possibility of the Subject.

    7. “”Meme” emphasises how and why they are propagated from mind to mind, and the properties that determine their survival.”

    But it doesn’t explain how they were propagated from mind to mind, nor why. We can find out why an idea spreads by asking those who spread them. For example

    Us: “George, why do you bang on about the end of the world?”
    George: “Because the weight of scientific evidence shows that it is likely to be the case”

    Memetics defers awkward questions to a very ill defined speculative theory in a very similar way to Descartes deferring the difficult question of what the subject consists to a mysterious non-material substance. Or, for that matter, religious people might defer questions about puzzling things to ‘an act of God’.

    9. “But the terrorist Jihad is unquestionably driven by orthodox Religion. Those who claim otherwise are either ignorant or lying.”

    Oh, well, that’s that settled then, isn’t it.

    What “orthodox religion”? In what religion is it “orthodoxy” to organise “terrorist Jihads”? How do you explain the predominance of non-violence in Middle Eastern countries between people who observe different, but orthodox Abrahamic religions –all of which contain combative statements as you’ve described – who don’t continually set fire to each other, both now, and in the past?

    Looking to religion to explain communal violence in Northern Ireland without understanding the Republican movement and imperialism would be just as shallow, and ahistorical.

    10. You’re making a statement about your own experience. The point we were making contrasts the mass politics of old with the environmental ‘movement’. As we have pointed out before, the highest profile Green politician – Caroline Lucas – polled less than 2% of the electorate. If environmental concerns had been established by a ‘grass roots’ mass movement, you’d expect her to do better than that. Greens, and green ideas get far more airtime than is warranted by public sympathy for them. So woefully unsupported are Green policies that the EU shells out millions of Euros to NGOs in order that they lobby the EU for environmental policies to give them a veneer of political legitimacy. That is not characteristic of a mass political movement. May we suggest you read a few more of our posts if you want to know what we mean here? It is one of the themes we explore most often.

  7. Stevo

    1. a) I’m not making any defence of Monbiot’s metaphor. I don’t agree with his view. I’m simply saying that in this particular case he intends a different wrong meaning that the one you have assumed.

    b) No, it isn’t necessary to have an account of the mechanism. But I don’t think the basis for beliefs implies either the existence or non-existence of subjectivity.

    The remainder of the comment is an argument from adverse consequences.

    2. a) I recognised the play on words. My question though was about how you measure properties of the immaterial and undetectable, in order to be able to say. Extension and mass are conceptually independent – Newtonian point-particles have mass but no extension, for example.

    Do minds not have a position in space, coincident with the pineal gland, say? What forces hold them in place, as the body moves about on the ever-spinning Earth? They clearly apply forces to real particles, in order to direct the body to move in the material world. If Newton’s third law applies to the ethereal, then there would be forces in return by means of which the mind received sensory data from the body. And as the ratio of force to acceleration is mass, the mass would necessarily be non-zero.

    That’s speculative, of course, but it seems no more speculative than the alternative. Without physical evidence that it even exists, or knowledge of the physics of the ethereal realm, how can we possibly assert facts about properties of it such as mass?

    b) Certainly the idea has been entertained seriously. There are, as I say, serious issues with Dualism, but none to my knowledge rest on either memes or the basis for beliefs.

    3. If you say so.

    5. a) I think you are determined that it be so. I shan’t argue further.

    b) In the Dennett/Blackmore case, yes.

    6. Why would the Subject select for messages that advocated themselves to be propagated particularly?

    7. We already know how they’re propagated. By one person telling it to another, or by reading it in a book, or by imitation. I’m not sure if you’re making some deeper point here.

    9. It would require more than a brief blog comment to “settle” the matter.

    You ask “In what religion is it “orthodoxy” to organise “terrorist Jihads”?” The answer is “Islam.” Offensive Jihad is fard al kifaya under Sharia law, which means a religious obligation on the community. The obligation is met if a sufficient number of the community carry it out, with the rest thereby absolved. However, if nobody carries it out then the sin rests on all.

    You ask why the Middle East is not in constant war. The answer is that there is a specific exception for the ahl al-kitab – the People of the Book – to who the Islamic Qur’aan was earlier revealed (and then distorted/corrupted, according to Muslims). Such people may remain under treaty of protection, as “dhimma”, a sort of second-class citizenship with heavy restrictions. The zonnar, the jizya – under the Ottomans the devshirme – and a variety of restrictions on worship, church-building, witness in court, and conduct with Muslims. Their lives are forfeit if they break the treaty.

    Jihad is not, contrary to popular opinion, about converting everyone to Islam – something which is technically not permitted, (although it sometimes does happen in practice). It is about making them submit to Islamic law and be humbled.

    Technically, this protective treaty should not apply to polytheists and atheists – although because of the difficulty they had killing all the Hindus they found when they invaded India, it has been intermittently extended to other religions.

    In modern times in the face of overwhelming Western power, their behaviour in this regard has been muted, with dhimma laws being discontinued everywhere at least officially. And it’s pretty certain that a lot of Muslims are not as devout and observant as they once were, especially where they’ve been heavily exposed to the West. But it can still be pretty atrocious.

    Seriously, if you want to learn the truth about Islam, I suggest you start with the Sharia manual “Umdat al Salik” by the Islamic scholar Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, which is published in English translation as “Reliance of the Traveller”. It’s been (fairly) recently endorsed as correct and conforming to the faith and practice of the Sunni community by a range of moderate Islamic authorities including the Theological college of Al Azhar University. It’s available on Amazon. After that, you can move on to al-Tabari’s history “Ta’rikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk”, starting from volume VI to find out how they interpreted it in practice. And there’s plenty more.

    People don’t often openly talk about it; partly because they’re scared (with reason), partly because you conventionally don’t speak ill of religion, and because nobody can believe you if you do. And as a consequence most people are immensely ignorant of it, picking up only a few sanitised snippets from the media or books written for Westerners.

    It’s not really any harder to find out about than global warming, though.

    10. Who people vote for doesn’t necessarily reflect their beliefs. Like I said, they don’t like the Deep Greens, but the other two parties do have Green policies too, so you can’t tell they’re not voting for those.

    If people want their vote to count, they also consider whether the party has a chance of getting in, and therefore tend to vote for the least obnoxious of the three main ones.

    Try quoting opinion polls instead.

  8. Editors

    1. It seems evident that your defence of Monbiot is more an attempt to rescue memes. Given the prominence of anti-theism in your comments, it’s easy to see why you want to hold on to them.

    2. We haven’t offered an argument which depends on Cartesian substance dualism, why would we need to explain it? “Newtonian point-particles have mass but no extension, for example.” Do they exist, though?

    3. “Why would the Subject select for messages that advocated themselves to be propagated particularly?” You’d have to ask the subject, as we suggested.

    9. It is curious that you should say “And it’s pretty certain that a lot of Muslims are not as devout and observant as they once were, especially where they’ve been heavily exposed to the West.” A connection with the West seems to be the common factor in most notable cases of terrorism since 911. Sayyid Quttb – the God father of contemporary radical Islam – himself was Western educated. Whether it was the influence of the West, or Islam, we’re talking about a tiny number of people amongst two groups that number a billion in each case. To draw a causal connection between either of them and terrorism is crass.

    10. Opinions are not mass political movements. Allow us to repeat the suggestion that you actually read some of the other posts on the blog.

  9. Stevo

    1. I repeat, I’m not defending Monbiot.

    You’re making incorrect assumptions about my motivations. Memes do not constitute a significant argument against theism. Discrediting memes does not rescue theism. And I’ve no particular intention of arguing theism with you. I don’t care about it. What I was trying to say was that Monbiot’s point about memes was different to your claim, and in fact applied with even greater force to the methods of the AGW activists. I was trying to improve your case, and knock down Monbiot’s. But it’s clear that you’re so wedded to the “memes are atheist propaganda” propaganda, that you don’t want my help.

    So be it.

    2. You haven’t offered an argument that depended on memes, either.

    Whether point particles exist is another interesting question. At present, nobody knows. They give odd results in quantum field theory that we have to use renormalisation to get rid of, but it’s not clear if the point-particles could be kept and the problems could be avoided some other way.

    However, they’re what every physicist has used since Newton up until the advent of string theory, and which most physicists use still. The concept of mass without extension is perfectly acceptable.

    9. Sayyid Qutb (I’ve read some of his works) was indeed educated in the West, and it was as a result of that that he concluded contact with the West was corrupting Muslims and eroding their religious belief. Salafism seeks to revive the pure Islam of the founders as a response to this cultural contamination.

    (Passive) support for Jihad is, according to the polls, about 5% of Muslims in the West, ranging up to somewhere around 40%-60% in certain countries. Whether those figures can be believed is another matter. However, whether or not modern day Muslims believe in it, the fact remains that Jihad is a religious requirement in the orthodox Islam of all the four main Sunni schools, and it always has been. This is stated in Qur’aan, Tafseer, and Haddith, and confirmed repeatedly by Muslim jurists. It has only been in the last couple of centuries that they haven’t been perfectly open about it. (As when Jefferson asked them about the Barbary pirates.)

    The 9-11 terrorists were religiously driven, and their interpretation of Islamic scripture was largely the correct historical one. There are several more or less constructive ways to react to that, but simply denying the truth doesn’t help.

    I’ve given you the means to check whether what I say is true or not from authentic religious authorities. If you choose not to do so while still maintaining that I’m wrong, I can only assume you’re mind is already made up. Argument from adverse consequences again?

    10. My original phrase was “…the environmental message appeals to people…” which is what you initially seemed to be arguing with. I didn’t say anything about a mass political movement.

  10. geoff chambers

    Every time you tell a lie, a fairy dies: James Barrie said that. Every day you waste discussing memes, 500 people die from global warming: I said that, and the Guardian supports me to the hilt.
    This article:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2003/dec/12/climatechange.climatechangeenvironment published while you were discussing the oh so important Cartesian mind-body problem, resurrected the myth of the massacre of the innocents during the 2005 heat wave. You and I and a few hundred denialists are being held responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands in the third world; the rising temperatures and sea levels; the disappearance of untold species.
    Isn’t it obvious that Monbiot was using “meme” as a rude word, a red rag? Why rise to the bait ? Get back to the real world. Lucas and Monbiot were yesterday’s targets. The flag today is in the hands of a certain Obama. What is to be done?

  11. geoff chambers

    Mine was a serious question. Do you have an answer? If you prefer philosophical digression, its your right, it’s your site. But you claim to be concerned about the emptiness of modern politics, exemplified by the major parties’ espousal of global warming as the problem of the century. You do an excellent job on the likes of Lucas, (though with her 2% it’s like using rational argument to demolish the Monster Raving Loonies). But what about the parties who represent the other 98% of voters, and who are committed to exactly the same insane policies? Do you think you’re going to persuade the focus-group-driven dinosaurs who rule us to change direction by sweet reasoning? Do you see Peter Lilley or Jeremy Clarkson as potential saviours of civilisation?
    Your site is one or the few sources of serious analysis of global warming politics, yet you seem unwilling to engage in any speculation as to how this peculiar story will play out. You provide sophisticated analyses of specific symptoms of the disease, but as to the prognosis, it seems to be “nature will take it’s course”. The natural hedonistic good sense of ordinary voters will cause Monbiot and Lucas and their like to wither away like vampires in the sunlight. But meanwhile there’s Obama, probably (no, certainly) the first leader in history to have a majority of the world’s population behind him, who’s just appointed a bunch of Monbiomorphs to regulate the planet’s energy production for the next 4 to 8 years. They won’t be deflected by mere weather. How can they be stopped? I don’t expect you to have ready answers. I do expect you to engage in practical speculation as to what can be done. If you don’t , there’s only the red republican gun-lobbying Palin fans (plus Melanie Philips in the Daily Mail) between us and a return to the middle ages. I’m worried. Psychologically, I’d be much happier on the other side of the fence.

  12. Stevo


    The philosophical digression was merely a bit of fun. Life goes on, and there’s more to it than arguing about climate change.

    On your questions – it seems to me that to redirect focus-group-driven dinosaurs, you need to work on the people who make up focus groups – i.e. the general public. It’s not reasoning that will change minds, but votes; or being voted out.

    Nobody can predict the future. But if you want my guess, it will play out the same way all the other Environmental and health scares have played out. Overpopulation, acid rain, DDT, pesticides, MMR vaccination, power lines, mobile phone masts, GM crops, the ozone hole, plastic bags, obesity, nuclear waste, oil spills, deforestation, global cooling, etc. etc. ad nauseam. It’ll go on for a bit longer, various political gestures will be made, and then everybody will quietly forget about it as they move on to the next one.

    We have no idea of what Obama is going to do. We know what he’s said he’ll do, but he’s a politician. There’s no point worrying about it now – it’s too late for that. He has a popular mandate, and it would be undemocratic to ‘stop’ him. What will be, will be.

    The most practical action to be taken now is against the Environmental Litany and the public’s uncritical belief in it. Educate people. And then maybe next time around things will be different.

  13. Editors

    “What is to be done”?

    Steady on, Geoff, this is just a blog.

    The above discussion represents a continuation of a theme we’ve been discussing since the beginning of the blog. (However, it went into many tangents that we didn’t have the time to discuss).

    Lots of our posts have been about how Green ideas are used to undermine the status of non-compliant individuals; members of the public, and people with public profiles. At one end, people are simply called deniers. At the other, many environmentalists have called into question the ability of the democratic process to ‘deal with climate change’. In-between, we’ve pointed out several claims about the psychological make up of individuals to cope either intellectually or emotionally with the concept of climate change.

    You may see this as a pointless digression and criticism of the likes of Lucas as inconsequential while the major parties are so much more influential. But our view is that it is a phenomenon of contemporary politics, of which environmentalism is just one, but particularly acute, expression. This can be viewed from other angles, such as the ‘politics of fear’, or more generally ‘crisis politics’. But we’re particularly interested in the role that scientism plays in green ideas: it defines the ‘crisis’ and seemingly gives an account of individuals which renders them incompetent to engage in discussions about their own future.

    Political ideas must start from some kind of fundamentals. We think it would be valuable if people could see what kind of ‘metaphysics’ are operating in environmental philosophy and politics more generally.

  14. geoff chambers

    I don’t understand what you mean by:
    “you need to work on … the general public. It’s not reasoning that will change minds, but votes.”
    If reasoning doesn’t work, what do you suggest? Or do you mean you can’t reason with politicians, but only with voters? Here I’d disagree. In normal circumstances, politicians are very open to suggestions for changing policy on specific issues if they feel there are votes in it for them. There are obviously votes in scepticism – look at the “Clarkson for PM ” campaign in the Sunday Times. But what MP’s going to stand up to the ridicule of their own party leaders and colleagues and demand inaction on global warming?

    You say: ”Nobody can predict the future”.
    Well, yes we do, in a trivial sense, every time we make a career choice or book a holiday. I try to tailor my predictions to the matter in hand, and avoid grand speculations; so I ask: “Is the company I work for solvent?” not “Is the global economy going to crash?”. “Will the weather be nice in the Maldives in February? “ not “Will the coral die and the islands sink?”

    My criticism of this site and many others is that, in an overreaction to the alarmists’ obsession with predicting and controlling the future, most sceptics refuse to speculate on how the politics of global warming will develop, and just assume that the truth will out, that the Emperor’s nakedness will become evident, and we can all go back to leading normal lives. It’s no doubt a psychologically healthy way of differentiating ourselves from the Moonbats, not to get obsessed with little red lines wiggling off into the future. And of course we can’t “know” the political future of our world, any more than we can know the future climate. But we’re in some sense responsible for the former, though not the latter, which is why speculation – as to what Obama’s environment czarina will do next month, or whether democracy is finished – is a legitimate part of all political debate. And if I voice my criticisms here, it’s not because I disagree with what’s said, but precisely because there are people here who are capable of animating such a debate.

    As for your list of environmental scares, they’re too disparate for any conclusion to be drawn. Some, like acid rain, are examples of real problems which were solved by government action, propelled by sensible environmental campaigning. My eyes don’t sting when it rains now. Others were scares, or minor problems exaggerated by campaigners, but none were elevated to the Greatest Threat to the Planet by the entire political establishment. No-one ever got elected on a promise to close the ozone hole.

    “Just a blog?” You’re too modest. Climate Audit is just a blog, but it’s probably slowly changing the balance of opinion within the scientific world, by focussing on one specific area, the statistics of climate change predictions. The socio-political field you’re ploughing doesn’t lend itself to the same level of scientific rigour, but it’s equally important.
    I certainly don’t think your criticism of Lucas is inconsequential. Her importance comes from the fact that she’s elected, and if your criticism helps to get her de-elected you’ll have done a great service

    On your suggestion that environmentalism is just one idea which happens to fill the vacuum in contemporary politics: if it was just environmentalism, just recycling and saving energy etc., well, it would have to battle with alternative worries, like terrorism, on a level playing field. Is pollution from landfill sites more dangerous than al Qaida, or are both distractions from the need to provide decent schools and houses? This is the kind of discussion we could all participate in, with some hope of a rational outcome. But AGW probably doesn’t exist, and if it does, it’s effects in 50 years are utterly unknowable, so no rational discussion is possible, so political debate is non-existent, and those who propose it are demonised as deniers. This is the original and (to me) disturbing characteristic of global warming. That political consensus has coalesced around a non-existent threat (as opposed to a greatly exaggerated one) is no accident. It protects the politicians from rational criticism, not by outlawing it, but by rendering it logically impossible. You can fight malaria by eradicating the mosquitoes that carry it. But how do you fight a plague spread by chimeras?

    No doubt warmers are guilty of scientism, though I feel it’s name-calling which doesn’t advance the discussion much more than the psychological terms I favour, such as cognitive dissonance or displacement activity. You say “political ideas must start from some kind of fundamentals”. Who could disagree? Then you talk about the ‘metaphysics’ operating in environmental philosophy. There you lose me. Greens don’t have a philosophy; they have feelings, like plants. They need talking to in a low calm voice.

  15. Alex Cull

    At the moment, blogging, commenting and generally communicating on the subject of AGW and the environment seem to be the most effective things to do, IMO.

    The other options would surely be forming/joining a political movement or engaging in direct action, i.e., activism.

    The problems with these are:
    1) What political movement? There doesn’t seem to be one (yet.) Individual politicians talking sense – Peter Lilley, Ann Widdecombe, et al – yes. A fully-fledged Climate Heretic Party drawing from all parts of the political spectrum – no.
    2) Activism can be a double-edged sword. Greenpeace and the Plane Stupid people are either heroes or crazies, depending on who you ask in the street. I don’t think chaining ourselves to railings in front of Greenpeace HQ would impress the basically rational, sensible people we would want to influence.

    So maybe the answer (for the moment) is to continue doing what we’re doing at the moment, which is demonstrate that there is an intelligent alternative to the green-tinged doom and despair that seems to be endemic among the Guardian columnists and their following.

  16. geoff chambers

    Alex, you’ve convinced me. Meanwhile, here’s a little party game I’ve invented for the festive season. When the conversation turns to politics, wait till everyone’s got a good mouthful of Chrismas pudding, and launch into praise of Lord Lawson for his courageous radicalism, and castigation of Obama for his blinkered clinging to yesterday’s wornout ideas. Report back in the new year. Merry Annus Mirabilis and a Happy New Tipping point everyone

  17. Stevo


    “If reasoning doesn’t work, what do you suggest? Or do you mean you can’t reason with politicians, but only with voters?”

    What I meant was that even if you convinced the politicians of the validity of your arguments, they still wouldn’t change the policy, because they are driven by the political realities of being party members and elected representatives.

    I recall once having an extended argument with an MP over her campaign to stop some mobile phone masts being put up. I went through the science of emitted power and radiation physics in great detail. But the MP replied in effect that none of that mattered. The fact was she had several thousand scientifically illiterate constituents utterly convinced that phone masts caused brain tumours, who would play merry hell if she wasn’t prominent in making a stand against them.

    MPs do sometimes go against their voters’ expressed wishes, but they usually need some powerful motivation to do so. Politics is full of compromises.

    “”Nobody can predict the future””

    Career and holiday destination choices aren’t predictions. But perhaps what I should have said was “reliably accurate long term predictions of chaotic phenomena like weather, politics, or social change”.

    Many sceptics refuse to engage in speculation or extrapolation because they believe there is insufficient data for anyone to be able to do so.

    “Some, like acid rain, are examples of real problems which were solved by government action, propelled by sensible environmental campaigning.”

    Try reading what Lomborg said about it in The Skeptical Environmentalist. Apparently, they did some controlled experiments to find out exactly how much acid rain damaged trees by watering some test plots with varying levels of acid. Turned out the more acid it was, the better the trees grew – it acted as fertiliser. But by the time they found that out, it was all over.

    It may be that only the overpopulation scare was of a similar magnitude, but they are all of a similar kind. I’ve seen all of them cited as evidence that we are “destroying the world” and similar hyperbole. They’re all of them vastly exaggerated, if not outright false. They were all the big issue for an interval, before being quietly dropped. And the general public hardly ever actually got to find out what happened.

    I know it seems hard to imagine that the failure of AGW to materialise could be ignored, but I remember the ‘population bomb’, and the confident predictions that we would be fighting wars over the last dregs of the world’s resources before the end of the century – that’s last century. Allusions to it appeared constantly in the media and politics. (“Short of nuclear war itself, population growth is the gravest issue the world faces. If we do not act, the problem will be solved by famine, riots, insurrection and war.”) But its ultimate failure passed almost entirely without comment. And its former prominence was subsequently erased from the media-presented version of history – which is all that is visible to the incurious.

    Orwell described exactly the same phenomenon in Nineteen Eighty Four (“we’ve always been at war with Eastasia”), so I think it’s been going on for a long time.

    Why do you think all their predictions about AGW are for years like 2030 and 2050 and so on?

    Orwell might have had a point about the futility of hoping for change – Julian Simon is not going to be required reading in every school any time soon. But maybe the internet can change things. As Monbiot’s rant indicated, things are not going all their way this time.


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