Friday, 29 June 2012

How to Measure a Meme

This was quite a challenge, as experiments go.

Eileen - I'm sorry, I just can't bring myself to call her "Mum" - picked up on Tim's post in which he referred to people who thought memes could be detected using fMRI. For those who are unaware - and why should you be? - a "meme" is a Dawkinsian idea that a set thought-pattern - a religion, for example, or a belief in ghosts or antipathy to Nandos - that can be passed through a population. The problem with the concept is that it is what scientists technically refer to as a load of fetid dingo's kidneys, but the word has caught on.

Surely, I figured, if a meme exists then, when it comes into existence it must be possible to measure it? And clearly the simplest way to measure anything is to weigh it.

So I decided that what we needed was an experimental subject - or "victim" if you prefer - who had a mind clear of all ideas, suppositions and, for that matter, morality. Someone untroubled even by the knowledge of right and wrong. In short, we went to Hitchin and offered the first person we met a tenner.

So we sat him down on the weighing chair, and checked his weight. Then over a three-hour period we introduced him to views on sexuality, the existence of God, ghosts, phlogiston and the Horsehead Nebula. We told him dodgy beliefs about Richard Gere, Catherine the Great and Geoffrey Chaucer. We told him urban myths, true scientific theories, geographical tall tales and unlikely stories about women from Epping. And after three hours, we had given him 1,000 memes - a kilomeme, if you will. And we weighed him again.

He was 423g heavier. So we concluded that the meme does exist. And on average - because we've not delved into whether complex memes are heavier than simple ones - the meme weighs 0.423g.

Or, of course, it could have been the doughnuts.


  1. Priceless! By Gad, sir, I believe you've cracked it...

  2. I think that you have quite a scientific mind for weighing doughnuts, but I'm sure that you could also measure the 'hot air' that the meme is composed off.

    Since Hot Air rises, there must be a way of capturing it on the way up to measure it's volume, rather than it's content, which is as you describe, a load of old cobbler's lasts.

    I've often wondered about measuring the volume of prayer as it rises during worship, than doing a comparative study of it's volume across all of the places of worship, of whatever flavour, so that it could be explained scientifically as a gift to God to thank him for creation. This would make good sense to an evolutionist as well as a creationist.

    You could even colour the hot air with some form of dye to show it's volume in bulk - obviously such a thing exists as I'm always reading about people 'turning the air blue' with their blasphemies.


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