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« What antagonistic memes look like: the case of the HPV Vaccine | Main | New paper: Zika risk perceptions & culturally antagonistic memes! »

What antagonistic memes look like: the case of the Zika virus

From the new APPC/CCP Working Paper, Culturally Antagonistic Memes & the Zika Virus:

3.1. Why Zika

The focus of the study was the impact of culturally antagonistic-meme generating communications on the perceived risks of the Zika virus.

We selected the Zika virus for two reasons. The first is that we are confident there isn’t currently meaningful cultural dissensus on Zika at the current time. For over five months, the Annenberg Public Policy Center (2016a) has been tracking U.S. public opinion on the disease. Attention early on spiked and then leveled off, and is now rising again; knowledge about the health effects of the virus and about effective means of self-protection have proven uneven; certain misunderstandings about the link between the virus and microcephaly have persisted, albeit at modest levels (Annenberg Public Policy Center 2016b).

But nothing in this mix varies meaningfully with ideology, religion, or like forms of cultural identity.  There is reason to be apprehensive about the speed with which members of the public are progressing in their understanding of key facts about the virus. But the evidence suggests that culturally diverse members of the public are progressing in unison, much in the manner one would expect under the “normal,” nonpathological process contemplated by the AH-CCT Model (Figure 1).

click me-- more refreshing than a cold lemonaid in the middle of an AGW heatwave!At the same time, there has been a steady accumulation of communications tying the Zika health threat to already culturally charged issues (Figure 3).  The voice of public health officials furnishing the public with precautionary advice is only one in a chorus, whose other members include a collection of advocacy groups all seeking to leverage public anxiety over Zika into greater attention to their special cause.

Among these are anti-immigrant groups. These actors suggest that the spread of Zika is likely to be accelerated by undocumented aliens as well as lawful immigrants from Zika-affected regions. “Latin America’s Zika virus is the latest undocumented immigrant to hit our shores,” one commentator caustically notes (Malkin 2016). It’s obvious from the “available evidence” that “open borders contribute to the vulnerability of the United States to the virus” (Corsi 2016). “People from Central and South America, ground zero for Zika and other infectious diseases including tuberculosis, dengue, Chagas, Chikungunya and schistosomiasis, make up nearly 15 percent of the illegal-immigrant population in the U.S.” (Malkin 2016). “[A] drain on our economy, a peril to our national security, and a drag on our souls,” illegal immigrants are now “hazardous to our health, thanks to sloppy U.S. immigration laws acting as incubators for diseases once foreign to North America — like the untreatable Zika virus” (Abruzzo 2016).

Climate change advocates have also latched onto Zika. “Zika is the kind of thing we’ve been ranting about for 20 years,” one observes. “We should’ve anticipated it. Whenever the planet has faced a major climate change event, man-made or not, species have moved around and their pathogens have come into contact with species with no resistance” (Milman 2016). Now “thanks to climate change” Zika could “soon enjoy a greater reach” (Mercer 2016), “spread[ing] deeper” into now secure areas of the U.S. (Gillis 2016).  Of all the “tragedies stemming from global warming,” including the “floods and droughts and storms, the failed harvests and forced migrations, . . . no single item on the list seems any more horrible than the emerging news from South America about the newly prominent Zika disease” (McKibben 2016). “We need to face up to the fact that pushing the limits of the planet’s ecology has become dangerous in novel ways.”  “The Republicans are in denial about climate change, but in the real world, we can feel it . . . . It’s also an invitation for breeding mosquitoes and putting Americans at risk all across the United States” (Johnson 2016).

The situation presented, then, furnishes an ideal one to extend previous research.  The tropes that inform advocacy material linking Zika to other culturally contested issues are replete with the accusatory and resentment-focusing tropes featured in highly polarized risk disputes. Yet in no  previous study  has there been an opportunity to test the impact of such tropes in relation to an issue not already the subject of at least modest contestation.

It is possible, of course, that the explanation for the patchwork of contestation and tranquility that forms the fabric of public risk perception is some as-yet undetected factor intrinsic to particular risk sources. It is perfectly plausible to believe, too, that deeper, historical influences render a particular risk source either impervious or distinctly amenable to controversy of a particular form, in particular societies. But through an appropriately constructed study, one can test the alternative hypothesis that it is the contingent advent of exposure to culturally antagonistic memes that triggers such conflict, and accounts for its complexion and intensity.  The study we conducted was aimed at furnishing evidence relevant to assessing the relative plausibility of these alternative conjectures.

click for closer look!Referances

Abruzzo, S.  Illegals, not American travelers, may be bringing Zika to our shores.  Brooklyn Daily (Feb.  5, 2016), available at

Annenberg Public Policy Center. Annenberg Science Knowledge Survey (2016a). Available at

Annenberg Public Policy Center. More than 4 in 10 Mistakenly Think Zika is Fatal, Symptoms are Noticeable. Annenberg Science Knowledge Survey (Mar. 10, 2016b). At

Corsi, J.  Zika Virus Joins List of Diseases Brought by Illegals.  WND (Feb.  1, 2016), available at

Gillis, J. In Zika Epidemic, a Warning on Climate Change. N.Y. Times, A6 (2016).

Johnson, B., Dem Leaders: Climate change stoking Zika, which could b ‘greater threat’ than Ebola. PJ Media. (Apr. 26, 2016), at

Malkin, M. Chicken Little Chuckie Schumer: America's Disease-Fighting Phony. National Review (Feb. 3, 2016), available at

Mercer, G. The Link Between Zika and Climate Change. Atlantic (2016).

Milman, O. Climate change may have helped spread Zika virus, according to WHO Scientists. Guardian (Feb. 11, 2016), at

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Reader Comments (5)

Ultimately, IMO, the responsibility for counterproductive polarization lies with the public, not advocates. That isn't to say that advocates shouldn't evaluate the impact of their advocacy, and whether or not their particular form of advocacy advances or slows progress towards their goals.

But the public, in fact, does have agency over whether their views reflect "who" they are rather than "what' they know...and if they don't exercise that agency then trying to address cultural cognition by focusing on what advocates or scientists say seems to me to be a bit like treating a systemic disease with band-aids.

Additionally, there is an inherent subjectivity in how the determination of what is and isn't appropriate communication on these issues.

When Trump or Christie rail against immigrants from countries were Ebola is active, I might think that is irresponsible fear-mongering, intended rather explicitly to exploit risk for the purpose of political expediency, and without regard for the ultimate impact on public health (which public health experts say is likely to be placed at greater risk because of their advocacy).

But Trump's supporters see Trump as bravely stepping forth in the face of repressive "political correctness" to protect the public from a invasive threat.

And what is a researcher to do if her analysis shows that after controlling for other contagion pathways and legal immigration, illegal immigration increases the risk from Zika, or if her analysis shows that increasing global temperatures advances the spread of Zika to regions previously unaffected? Should she not provide that information to the public because it might be twisted in such a way as to increase polarization and thus, increase the risk? In addition to being an unrealistic expectation, such an expectation seems inherently problematic for obvious reasons.

So, then, what is the dividing line between a researcher responsibly communicating a factor that amplifies risk, versus a researcher inadvertently adding to counterproductive polarization, versus a researcher engaging in identity-protective and identity-aggressive behaviors as she leverages cultural cognition to affirm her own sense of identity?

July 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


So why hasn't the public polarized themselves on Zika yet? Or on the HBV vaccine? Why Has the public polarized itself on nuclear in US but not France? ON GM in France but not US?...

And what is the mechanism by which public polarizes itself? Who is the agent? Why does it act "on behalf of public" that wants to polarize itself?...

July 20, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

==> So why hasn't the public polarized themselves on Zika yet? Or on the HBV vaccine? Why Has the public polarized itself on nuclear in US but not France? ON GM in France but not US?... ==>

Damned if I know, Dan.

I don't doubt that the effect you found given your experimental conditions translates to the real world to some extent, or that it helps explains the mechanics of ideological polarization.

But I think that the explanatory power is limited. I think a parallel might be what was discussed in your guest post a while back where the author discussed common assumptions about causality in the association between partisan media and public opinions. In the end, IMO, to some extent partisan media is the effect not the cause of polarization, as is divisive rhetoric from activists.

People have an innate drive to confirm their ideological identification and to enhance their sense of self by confirming the inferiority of the "other." Activists don't create that drive. Activists' rhetoric is a tool at the disposal of people looking to be polarized. And ultimately, individuals either accept or reject responsibility for mitigating picking up that tool.

So a question for you: What is the history of partisan rhetoric from activists in France w/r/t nuclear energy? If there has been a history of heavily partisan rhetoric, then why isn't the public heavily polarized? If not, then why not?

Additionally, I wonder if to get a fuller answer to your question, it might be important to consider ]looking at cultural influences along additional dimensions... such as "mastery vs. harmony" or "embeddedness vs. autonomy"

July 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


The more relevant thing to read then is not anyone's post on causation but the paper on selecting on dependent variable in science communication controversies.

You are doing that: your examples fit your theory; but your theory predicts controversies we don't see, too.

You are leaving out the role of adventitious causes. See today's post.

July 21, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

The great thing about the research work here is that it is out ahead of the public absorption of memes related to this subject. So it ought to be possible to see impacts of memes from various special interests as they occur. I hope that the monitoring can continue. This points to problems with research publication mechanisms with regard to quickly evolving issues.

Science can inform policy decisions but cultural values still should guide the decision making process. Just because our understanding of nuclear physics gives us the ability to bomb the planet into oblivion doesn't mean we ought to.

The is not really just one best path forward.

In the case of dealing with Zika virus a number of hypothetical alternatives are possible.

The following are meant to be unreasonably extreme:

1. A brutal version of Darwin in action. It is already being noted that the rate of ncidences of Zika in the areas where it was first noted are likely to subside in 3 years or so. As did Ebola. It is the standard trajectory of epidemics. Reoccurrences will occur periodically. The virus might modify itself into something even worse. Or gradually humans will develop resistance to it. What happens to the human gene pool would depend on how those with neurological problems were handled. It's the germs part of Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel.

2. We could find the idea of risking any further births with microencephaly to be unacceptable and put all women of childbearing age on birth control until such time as a vaccine is developed.

3. We could ensure that all humans in affected areas live in air conditioned homes with screens on the windows, attached garages with air conditioned cars for travel cars for travel and prohibit outdoor exercise

4. We could use pesticides wihout care as to their impacts on other species.

5. We could introduce a genetically modified mosquito to eliminate or displace the virus carrying mosquito without care as to other environmental impacts including spread of the modified genes.

But the best path for a democratic society interested in achieving the greatest common good would to implement policies that incorporate some of the elements of each of the ideas above in a careful manner that is directed towards the general welfare and not an excuse to entrench special interest groups.

That would be the best use of the best available science. The first "best" there having to do with values.

So what we need as outcones from this sort of research work are ideas on how the barbed arrows from special interest groups into existing tribal affiliations can be thwarted in favor of fostering broader public conversations that lead to policies that best promote the common good.

July 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia. Weis

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