From the new APPC/CCP Working Paper, Culturally Antagonistic Memes & the Zika Virus
2.1. In general
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“Memes” refer to ideas and practices that enjoy wide circulation and arouse self-reinforcing forms of attention as well as spontaneous adaptation and elaboration (Balkin 1998; Blackmore 1999). A small subset of these sorts self-replicating ideas and practices, the ones we call “culturally antagonistic memes” refer to highly evocative, highly inflammatory argumentative tropes used by members of one group to stigmatize another.
When they figure in debates over risk, these contempt-pervaded tropes invest positions on them with affective resonances symbolic of opposing groups’ values or identities. In the resulting discourse climate, individuals will come to perceive risk regulation as “express[ing] the public worth of one subculture’s norms relative to those of others, demonstrating which cultures have legitimacy and public domination” and thereby “enhnanc[ing] the social status of groups carrying the affirmed culture and degrad[ing] groups carrying that which is condemned as deviant” (Gusfield 1968, p. 59). Conducted in the idiom of instrumental consequences, the stances diverse citizens adopt on which activities genuinely threaten society and which policies truly mitigate the attendant dangers are become rhetorical subterfuges in an “ongoing debate about the ideal society” (Douglas &Wildavsky 1982, p. 36).
This process is effected through a decisive switch in the sort of information processing that is characteristic of the AH-CCT model. From a reliable and consensus-generating guide to valid decision relevant-science, the affective heuristic and cultural cognition at this point combine to generate a divisive, nontruth-convergent source of identity-protective cognition (Sherman & Cohen 2002; Kahan 2010).
By fusing contending positions on a risk or like facts to opposing group identities, antagonistic memes effectively transform positions on them into badges of membership in, and loyalty to, competing groups. Because this state of affairs pits opposing groups’ knowledge-certification systems against one another, the forms of information-processing associated with cultural cognition and the affect heuristic will under these conditions necessarily lose their power to generate truth-convergent forms of consensus across them.
This switch will not cause such information processing to abate, however. There is rarely any personal action that an individual can take that will affect the level of danger that a societal risk poses to him or anyone he cares about; his decisions as a consumer, voter, or participant in public debate won’t matter enough, for example, to affect the course of climate change, or the regulation of fracking, or the siting of nuclear waste facility. In contrast, such an individual’s personal behavior, including the attitudes he evinces on issues infused with social meanings, will typically have tremendous significance for the impressions that others form of his character (Sherman & Cohen 2002; Lessig 1996). As a result, it will be individually rational, if collectively disastrous, for individuals to form habits of mind that reliably produce identity-affirming rather than accurate ones when societal risks become infused with meanings that divide their groups from others (Kahan 2015b).
Indeed, these habits of mind will become seamlessly interwoven into the capacities essential for assessing scientific information. “Motivated system 2 reasoning” refers to the tendency of individuals to use their proficiency in Numeracy, cognitive reflection, and science comprehension to ferret out and credit identity-congruent evidence and explain away the rest (Kahan in press_b). Much as a virus does to the genetic material of an otherwise healthy cell, identity protective cognition effectively insinuates itself into reasoning dispositions essential to recognizing the best available evidence (Kahan 2013; Kahan, Peters et al. 2013). Their cognitive faculties having been redirected in this fashion, the individuals most adept in these forms of reasoning will end up the most polarized on culturally contentions risks (Hamilton 2011, 2012; Kahan, Peters et al.. 2012).
Identity-protective cognition is thus not a not a natural outgrowth of but rather a pathological deformation of the processes associated with the AH-CT model. The trigger of this pathology, moreover, is the advent of culturally antagonistic memes (Figure 1).
2.2. A concrete illustration
Many persistently contested science issues fit this pattern. But we will focus on one that we believe is particularly well suited for illustration: the U.S. experience with the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine confers (near-perfect) immunity to the human papilloma virus, an extremely common s
exually transmitted disease that cause cervical cancer. The vaccine also has the distinction of being the only childhood immunization recommended for universal administration by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that is not now on the schedule of mandatory school-enrollment immunizations in the United States. Legislative proposals to add it were defeated in dozens of states in the years from 2007 to 2008 as a result of intense political controversy over the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine (Kahan 2013).
Although the proposal to add the HPV vaccine to the list of mandatory vaccinations divided the public along predictable lines, the conflict over it was in fact not inevitable. Only a few years before nearly every state had endorsed the CDC’s proposal for universal administration of the HBV vaccine, which likewise confers immunity for a sexually transmitted disease, hepatitis-b, that causes cancer (of the liver). The HBV vaccine is now given in infancy, but at that time it was an adolescent shot, just like the HPV vaccine. During the years in which legislative battles were raging over the latter vaccine, nationwide vaccination rates for the former were well over 90% (ibid).
Like every other childhood vaccine that preceded it, the HBV vaccine was considered and approved for inclusion in state universal-immunization schedules by non-political public health agencies delegated this expert task by state legislatures. The vast majority of parents thus learned of the vaccine for the first
time when consent to administer it was sought from their pediatricians, trusted experts who advised them the vaccine was a safe addition to the array of prophylactic treatments for keeping their children healthy. Just as important, regardless of who these parents were—Republican or Democrat, devout evangelical or atheist—they were all afforded ample evidence that parents just like them were getting their kids vaccinated for HBV. This is a science communication environment in which the AH-CCT model can be expected to generate largely convergent affective reactions across all groups—exactly the outcome that was observed.
The HPV’s vaccine path to public awareness, in contrast, was much more treacherous. Seeking to establish a dominant position in the market before the approval of a competing shot, the manufacturer of the HPV vaccine orchestrated a nationwide campaign to establish immunization mandates by statutes enacted by state legislatures. What was normally a routine, nonpolitical decision—the administrative updating of states’ mandatory-vaccination immunization schedules—thus became a high-profile, highly partisan dispute. People became acquainted with the vaccine not during visits to their pediatricians’ office but while viewing Fox News, MSNBC, and other political news outlets. There they were bombarded with reports on the “slut shot” (Taormino 2006) and “virgin vaccine” (Page 2006) for school girls, a framing enabled by the manufacturer’s decision to seek fast-track FDA approval of a women’s-only shot as part of company’s plan to vault over the conventional, less speedy, depoliticized administrative-approval process (Gollust, Lorusso et al. 2015).
These media stories and resulting social media reaction were replete with what we are referring to as “culturally antagonistic memes.” “Trust us: Vioxx, Now Gardasil,” declared a viral internet feature that mocked the manufacturer’s own advertising campaign (Figure 2). “HPV vaccine: Republicans prove themselves morons once again,” sneered liberal commentators (2011). “They value your virginity more than your life,” another righteously intoned; “there was a time when only the loony left believed that the loony right favored death over sex; not any more” (Goodman 2005). Individualist-oriented commentators retorted: “Let’s use teenage girls as lab rats for a monopoly” (Erickson 2011).
These are exactly the conditions one would expect to fuse a risk issue to antagonistic social meanings, thereby triggering identity-protective cognition on the vaccine’s risks and benefits (Fowler & Gollust 2015; Bolsen, Druckman & Cook 2013). Studies confirmed that exactly that happened (Gollust, Dempsey et al. 2010; Kahan et al. 2010).
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