I sometimes wonder how people arrive at the opinions they hold. I think a lot of it comes from where they were born and raised. If you were born in France, you’ll think that Paris is the centre of the universe, and that the great people all have names like Balzac or Toulouse-Lautrec or Lavoiser. If you’re born in England, then London is the centre of the universe, and all the great people had names like Newton or Locke or Darwin and Gainsborough. You absorb what’s around you, and come to embody it. And you become French, or English, or whatever.
That said, I sometimes wonder whether my slightly divergent opinions about more or less everything grow out of the simple fact that I spent many of my formative years outside England. For throughout youth I lived in an extraordinary number of places other than England. Like Barbados, and Eritrea, and Libya, and Gambia, and several places in Brazil. We’d just land in these countries, and stay there a few months or a few years, before moving on. And none of them were a bit like England. The climate was different, the plants were different, the animals were different, the people were different, their clothes were different, their language was different, the food was different, even the roads and the street signs were different. Everything was different. My childhood consisted of a series of jolting changes, as our little family spaceship landed on yet another new planet. It meant constant adaptation, constant change, constant readiness to face surprises. Like big dead sharks on the beaches of the river Gambia, giant spiders in the forests of Brazil, and moths the size of small birds, and plumed dancing girls on the streets for Rio de Janeiro’s carnival. You never saw spiders like that or girls like that in England. Not ever.
My childhood consisted of saying goodbye to one reality, and hello to new ones. Nothing was fixed.
And I’ve often thought that someone who grew up in one little village in England or France or anywhere, and lived there all their lives, would have had a quite different idea of the world. It would be something that was fixed and almost changeless, in which the slightest change – a tree blowing down, a house being built – would have seemed shocking. I’ve supposed, perhaps wrongly, that such people would be conservatives, unwilling to change, and perhaps incapable of change.
On the other hand, when your environment never changes, perhaps it engenders a powerful desire for something different.
And when life keeps changing all the time, perhaps it creates a powerful wish to come to a stop. When at university some of my friends invited me to drive all the way to India in a LandRover one summer, I declined the offer because I’d already seen many of the places that they would see, and they held little allure.
University was another new environment, another planet. There were girls, and left wing philosophies, and grass, and new music. That’s when I became a bit left wing. It all rubs off a bit – although in the end I decided that Marx and Hegel and co. were completely incomprehensible in ways that Newton and Locke were not. And that’s because I’m English, and I’ve grown up absorbing an English set of sensibilities, if only from my two English parents, even if they were sitting on a beach in Brazil drinking cervejas and reading O Globo.
I’ve always liked and admired people who were thoughtful. My best friend at university was a thinker, whose conversations with me always began, “Don’t you think that…” From him I learned the trick of thinking slowly, talking slowly, and writing slowly. I saw him as the charismatic practitioner of exquisite rationality. Years later, when he’d retained his charisma, but lost his reason, he seemed a hollow man.
And some people I immediately distrusted. Dr W, in whose house I once lived, and who was the first antismoker I ever encountered, profoundly shocked me one day by breaking out into a loud tirade against his errant eldest son (probably caught smoking), and stood bellowing in the hallway of his house against the “filthy, filthy, filthy” habit. I immediately concluded that he was a bit mad, and when a few years later I took up smoking, it was in part because there couldn’t be much wrong with it if a nutter like him thought that there was. Dr W gave me a permanent lifetime inoculation against antismoking. Because I witnessed the irrationality of it at first hand.
I used to wonder even back then why people thought the way they did, and why I thought the way I did. And at one point I suggested that perhaps people’s opinions and beliefs about anything were the arithmetic average of the opinions and beliefs of the people around them. After all, when I became surrounded by people who talk about the ‘class struggle’ and ‘capitalism’, it had all rubbed off a bit, and I had absorbed a little bit of their opinions and beliefs. And conversely, they absorbed a little bit of mine.
And we tend to talk to people, or listen to people, who re-enforce our own opinions, and make them a bit stronger. There’s nothing nicer than having someone agree with you.
But when such people come out with something I don’t agree with, the result can be a catastrophic collapse in belief in everything they say. For example, I used to like Channel 4′s John Snow, until he grandly declared one evening on Channel 4 News that “the debate is over” on global warming. For me the debate is never over. And when and if it’s ever over, I will have lapsed into dogmatism. And so I began to see John Snow as a dogmatic thinker, and all his beliefs (including his belief in global warming) as dogmas. And I began to see the global warming alarmists not as open-minded scientists but closed-minded dogmatists.
And I distrust experts. I read an article a few months back in which Labour leader Ed Miliband expounded his faith in experts, and my small faith in him immediately grew smaller. An expert is simply someone whose opinion you accord greater weight than the opinions of non-experts. In the process of averaging opinion, the expert’s opinion counts for more. And so, the way I see it, experts – and pundits and philosophers and professors and preachers - are people who have unwarranted and undue influence in forming social opinion. They can lead people by their noses. And Ed Miliband is someone who is easily led.
But these days, everyone trusts experts. If you believe in global warming, it’s because you trust climate ‘scientists’. And in doing so you’ll be setting their opinions above your own lifetime experience. I don’t trust people who don’t trust themselves, but will instead trust any Tom, Dick, or Harry who has a doctorate in epidemiology or something.
And I think that’s because the older I get, the less I think us humans know about anything. I think that most of our ‘experts’ are essentially no different from witch doctors. Last year I was entertaining the idea that not only do our biologists not know what life is, but also probably don’t know how cells grow and divide. And if they don’t know that, then they know almost nothing about anything. And Sir Richard Doll was just another witch doctor when he claimed that smoking causes cancer, and may as well have been wearing a grass skirt with a bone through his nose. Because nobody knows what cancer is.
And nobody knows how economies work, or how human societies work, or anything else either, and we have entire universities full of people who know nothing about anything, giving each other Nobel Prizes.
It even extends to rocket science. A few months back, when a fireball exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia, NASA immediately declared that very same day that it was completely unrelated to the asteroid DA14 which was skimming past the Earth that day. How could they know? How could they possibly declare such a thing after seeing a couple of videos of the fireball, and getting its approach path completely wrong (they said it was going N-S, when actually it was going E-W)? So I’ve been involved in an effort to find a rock that was a companion of DA14, off to one side, that could land on Chelyabinsk. It’s a search for a needle in a haystack, and maybe we’ll never find it. But I know that I don’t believe NASA, and will never believe any ‘expert’ who comes up with an instant and authoritative explanation for something they clearly haven’t had time to think about carefully, or indeed at all.
But then, I can do a bit of rocket science. And I can do a bit of climate science too. I also tend to cook my own food, and bake my own cakes, and grow my own tobacco. Once I used to even make my own clothes. Because if you can do things yourself, you don’t have to rely on ‘experts’. And these days I have much greater trust in ordinary, non-expert people who can do a few things themselves. Who can grow plants, and make tables, and repair computers, and who bring a bit of that skill to all the other questions in life that they encounter, and don’t just drink in what some ‘expert’ on TV tells them.
But now I’m rambling…