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Soapbox: The Cancer Of Ideas

The cancer of ideas
Matthew Thomas
Soapbox 0047, 1999-08-08

Hands up who's ever heard of a meme. Hmmm, not too many of you.

Ok then, hands up who's ever received an e-mail message saying `please forward this to all your friends'. Ah, almost all of you. Good, good. Well, those e-mail messages are all examples of memes.

But obviously a little explanation is in order.

A meme is, on a basic level, just an idea. The idea behind memes, or `viruses of the mind', is that ideas are capable of growing, reproducing, and evolving -- just like plants and animals do. (The word meme was coined by evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins in 1976). Memes spread from one human to another, and only the fittest survive. `Fittest', as in nature, means only `most capable of reproducing': other qualities, such as the meme actually being factually true, are -- unfortunately -- not essential.

Meme theory (otherwise known as memetics) can be used to explain culture, advertising slogans, etiquette, conspiracy theories, religious rituals, urban myths, and (of course) those e-mail messages. And memetics can also be used, I think, to explain a lot of what has been going on in New Zealand during the last week on the subject of cancer.

Depending on your personal opinions about public safety versus individual choice, you will probably be either admiring or loathing the Ministry of Health because of its recent actions against the sale of the mussel extract, lyprinol. When confusion began a week ago about whether lyprinol was being marketed as a dietary supplement or as a medicine, the Ministry stepped in smartly and withdrew the product from the market until things could be worked out. This action came only days after some New Zealand news media had excitedly touted lyprinol as a possible `cure for cancer' -- much to the amusement of their Australian broadcasting colleagues.

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Cancer is, arguably, the disease of the twentieth century. While the oldest known cases of cancer in humans date from 5000 years ago, it is only in the twentieth century that notable progress has been made in working out just what cancer is, how cancers start growing, and what causes them. And many, many of those causes are directly related to the twentieth-century Western lifestyle -- the food we eat, the exercise we get, and the man-made chemicals in the air we breathe.

I have to admit that the news about cancer this week is interesting to me not so much because of its subject matter, but because of the way in which it is being used to propagate memes: both through dubious journalism, and the desire for quick-fix solutions.

Firstly, the dubious journalism. Both TV1 and the Herald have been criticised from a variety of quarters for their excited reporting, late last week, of the release of lyprinol for sale in New Zealand. Both news agencies have defended themselves; TVNZ saying that their coverage was fair and reasonable, and the Herald claiming that it was their moral duty to report the lyprinol story in the way that they did, for the benefit of cancer-suffering readers.

Arguments about whether these organizations did the right thing could go on forever, but it's fairly safe to predict that such cases of sensationalist and (arguably) premature reportage are only going to increase. As increasingly fragmented broadcast media (cable and satellite TV being the two most obvious examples) compete with each other, and with the Internet, for market share, the standards of professionalism and research expected of journalists are going to be squeezed tighter and tighter.

The whole Monica Lewinsky debacle in the United States was a case in point: newspapers and TV stations were falling over themselves, and each other, to compete with Internet `journalists' such as Matt Drudge -- Drudge being the person who broke the original Lewinsky story, and being someone who claims only an 80-percent accuracy rate for his stories. When the story broke, little things like verifying sources went out the window, even in the traditional media. For example, it was quite common for a newspaper to be reporting nothing more than what another newspaper had said, that other newspaper having relied totally on anonymous sources. The media fed on itself.

Such a frenzied media environment is an absolute haven for memes. If you are a meme, the fact that you happen to be true can help you to spread, but it often doesn't help that much. Sounding exciting is a much better reproductive feature. Because of this emphasis on attractiveness over truth, memes can be extremely damaging -- just as cancers themselves can be -- through their harmful spread throughout the body of the human race.

The mistaken idea that `anything natural must be safe', which seems to be assumed in a lot of the discussion about whether lyprinol should be on the market, is one example of a meme. The idea that `the cure for cancer' exists somewhere, if only we can find it, is another meme; and this brings me to my second difficulty with the cancer issue -- the desire for a quick-fix solution to the cancer problem.

The emotional appeal, often employed by lobby groups, that something `might prevent us from discovering the cure for cancer' has been used to argue against actions as varied as clearing rainforests (which might contain plants which contain the cure) and aborting babies (who might grow to do the research which leads to the cure). The discovery of such a cure would, to be sure, be highly prized: cancer is the second-highest cause of death in New Zealand, next to heart disease, and a cure for cancer would do wonders for our life expectancy. But the implicit assumption in these statements is that `the cure for cancer' -- and note the word `the' in that phrase -- actually exists.

Trouble is, cancer isn't a single disease. It's a group of diseases, which have similar effects on cells, but widely varying causes. On a basic level, cancers can be caused by exposure to any one of a variety of substances -- carcinogens -- such as cigarette smoke, asbestos, and formaldehyde. But exposure to these carcinogens usually isn't a sure way of contracting cancer. So on a broader level, the conclusion which medical researchers are forced to is that it's general things which make the difference to your resistance to cancer -- a good diet, moderation in alcohol consumption, regular exercise, and all those other things which we don't like doctors telling us about because they require that we actually put in some effort.

If cancer was a sentient being, we could almost accuse it of wanting us to put in such an effort to improve our lifestyles. Despite decades of research, a quick-fix cure for cancer stubbornly refuses to be found. And the apparent anti-cancer properties of some natural substances, such as the carotenoids found in some fruit and vegetables, seem to magically disappear when people try to put them in bottles.

But that doesn't stop us from looking -- it doesn't stop millions of dollars being spent worldwide each year on cancer research, trying to find that elusive quick fix. And this is money that might well be used more effectively on cancer prevention programmes. It's a symptom of this mentality that calls this past week for a national cancer plan to be introduced in New Zealand's health system -- despite this discussion probably being more important to New Zealand in the long run than the lyprinol story -- were covered with much less interest by the news media.

It's this sort of shallowness, I think, which suggests that memes are at work, rather than rational thought. And that is sad. So it may well be that the only way to counter this mentality is to introduce a competing meme -- a meme for long-term planning, perhaps.

Copyright (C) 1999 Matthew Thomas (mpt @ mailandnews . com).

Related Scoop stories

Related sites (external sites are not endorsed by Scoop)

  • Meme Central -- a wealth of information about memes and memetics
  • Cancer Society of New Zealand -- the major funder of cancer research in New Zealand
  • Long Now Foundation -- promoting long-term planning, on scales of a few thousand years at a time

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