I woke up astonished this morning.
All yesterday, my nose had been streaming, and my head felt thick and muzzy. I was developing a cold. Last night I prepared a drink of hot lemon juice and honey and whisky – something I usually do whenever the symptoms of a cold appear, even though it probably doesn’t do any good at all. So when I fell asleep last night, it was in full expectation that I’d wake up this morning with a full-blown cold, complete with sore throat and hacking cough. I’d dug out paracetamol and cough drops and even my little-used e-cig in preparation. I was quite certain of it. I was 99% certain of it. Maybe even 100% certain.
And so I was astonished this morning when I woke up and found that I didn’t have a cold. All the symptoms had vanished. My head was clear. My nose was dry.
And an hour or two after getting up, I remain astonished. Because I thought I would be in no fit state to write anything in my blog. Yet here I am, writing in it. How astonishing! I was so sure. And usually I’m never sure about anything.
It set me thinking about how all the disputes in the world are between people who are quite sure about one thing, and people who are quite sure of something else.
Most people, for example, are quite sure that smoking causes lung cancer. Everybody knows that, don’t they? There are only a few people who don’t believe it. And they are contrarians.
And lots of people believe that human-generated CO2 in the atmosphere is causing global warming. But then quite a few people don’t believe it.
I’m staying at my brother’s this week, while he’s off on holiday somewhere. And so I can legally watch television without paying the £155 licence fee, because he’s paid it. And so last night, as I prepared for my impending, inevitable cold, I was watching a BBC hit piece on Donald Trump’s utterly disastrous first 100 days in office. It was fronted by Jeremy Paxman, Britain’s equivalent of Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite. One person after another came on to say how he was completely unfit for his office, and kept changing his mind, and was making a complete mess of the job. But one or two of the critics weren’t so sure. One of them said that he’d been wrong about Trump every single time he’d said something. He even listed all the occasions he’d been wrong. He’d been so perfectly and exactly wrong, every single time, that he didn’t want to say any more about Trump.
But for the most part, all the critics of Donald Trump are absolutely certain that he’s mad, bad, and dangerous. And they probably meet about 100 people every day who have the exact same opinion. And so they get confirmation every day of their certainty. Because everybody they know thinks the same way they do.
I was reminded that I once saw Deborah Arnott say something like “We know that 400,000 people die from smoking every year.” That wasn’t exactly what she said, but it was something like that. And she said it matter-of-factly, as if it was a universal truth that everybody knew. But at the time I thought, “She doesn’t know any such thing. Not with any certainty. Not with any certainty at all.” In fact, it seemed to me that it would have been far more true to have said “We don’t know that 400,000 people die from smoking every year.”
But antismokers like Deborah Arnott are always perfectly certain. They never express any hint of doubt or uncertainty about anything. Deborah Arnott is no doctor or epidemiologist or scientist or expert, but she always speaks with the quiet assurance of one. Real experts don’t shout. And her quiet assurance extends beyond medicine into economics, when she quietly assures people that smoking bans have no adverse economic impacts. I think that if Deborah Arnott was to speak about global warming or Brexit or Trump, it would be to express quiet assurance that we were all frying ourselves, and Brexit was a catastrophe, and Trump was insane (e.g.)
INSANE SHRINKS SAY TRUMP MENTALLY ILL
It’s the reason why Deborah Arnott is the boss of ASH. She’s got the air of assurance and certainty that’s needed for the job. She’s unflappable. And she can tell a whole string of outright lies with a completely straight face. No-one else can do it quite like she can. It’s a remarkable gift. It’s a part that she knows how to play, like a consummate actor. It’s totally convincing. And it convinces everyone. Or almost everyone.
If there’s a difference between smokers and antismokers, it’s that smokers aren’t certain of anything, and antismokers are certain about absolutely everything. And they’re absolutely certain about everything that everybody else is certain about. They’re know-alls. They’re know-alls who are surrounded by identical know-alls.
And if antismokers are winning the war on smoking, it’s because their certainties are prevailing over smokers’ uncertainties. Certainty always trumps uncertainty. You’re always going to hire the guy who says he knows how to do something rather than the guy who says he doesn’t know, or is not sure, or will have to ask somebody else.
Smokers will only start winning when uncertainty mounts, and old certainties get swept away. When that happens, anyone who says they know anything with any certainty will start to look like a fool.
Most people seem to still be certain that Donald Trump is mad, bad, and dangerous. And maybe he is. But some people don’t seem to be quite as certain about it as they used to be. And if he manages another 100 days in office without starting WW3, probably quite a few more people won’t be quite so sure that he’s a madman. Maybe a few will start saying he’s a genius. And then quite a few people will start saying he’s a genius. And finally everyone will know that he’s a genius, with perfect certainty.
And that’s how it goes. The pendulum swings between two fixed certainties, the one the opposite of the other. In between, it’s never certain. In between, it’s always changing.
And my nose is running again. I was quite sure earlier today that I didn’t have a cold. But now I’m not so sure.