The Coming Collapse of Confidence

Over the past few years I’ve been changing my mind about a lot of things. So much so that I’m beginning to wonder what on earth it was that I thought 5 years ago.
I didn’t really have any opinions about smoking back then. I knew that there was a risk of lung cancer, but I didn’t know anyone who’d actually died of it. The only person I ever encountered who had lung cancer was a woman aged about 60 or so. I met her round at a dinner held by an old friend of mine. She looked like she was about 80, and she seemed immensely fragile, as if she was 90% composed of air, and a puff of wind could blow her away. She was very dignified, and withdrawn, and sad. But she had a wonderful strong son who doted on her, and who was determined to show her the world that was slipping away from her before she finally dissolved into non-existence. They were going to visit Italy. She seemed so frail that I wondered whether she would be able to stand up to the stresses of such a journey.
Years later, I understood what he was trying to do, when my father had a stroke, and he was lying in a hospital bed, screened off from the grass and trees and flowers outside the window, and I tried to lift him up so that he could see them, see their luxuriant green living growth. But I wasn’t strong enough to lift him, and my father laughed when I failed. Right up to the end, he kept his sense of humour. 
The puzzling thing about the woman with lung cancer was that she was a non-smoker. She’d never smoked her entire life. What was she doing with lung cancer? "Doesn’t smoking cause lung cancer?" I asked my old friend later. And he surprised me by saying, "No, it doesn’t. It just wrecks your lungs." That was the first time I’d ever heard anyone contradict the prevailing medical wisdom. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
15 years on from that day, I now think that my old friend, who’s dead now too, was probably right. Back then I’d not looked at the research myself. I took it on trust that the medical profession were telling the truth. But now that I’ve looked at quite a lot of the research, and realised just how tenuous it all is, I no longer believe what they say. All they ever found was that a lot of the people who got lung cancer were smokers. And that’s as far as they ever got. And they’ve been trying ever since to claim that smoking causes lung cancer, simply by coming on like authorities and repeating the claim over and over again. These days it seems to me that smoking probably ’causes’ lung cancer the way that visiting West Africa ’causes’ malaria. i.e. it doesn’t actually cause it at all. Malaria is caused by a bacterium parasite that is carried by West African mosquitoes, and is injected into the bloodstream when mosquitoes bite humans and suck out blood from them. You don’t get malaria from visiting West Africa. And I know that you don’t, because I lived there once, and got bitten by lots of mosquitoes. And like malaria, I now tend to think that lung cancer is probably caused by a bacterium or a virus, because over the past 20 or 30 years, more and more cancers – like cervical cancer – have been found to have viral origins. But that’s just my guess.
I think that, for people to question authorities such as doctors, something has to smell bad. And in my case, the claim that passive smoking was pretty much as dangerous as active smoking was something that smelled bad. To me it seemed that, after years and years of saying that smoking was bad for smokers, the medical profession was now suddenly claiming that smoking was a thousand times more dangerous than they’d hitherto said, and wasn’t just killing smokers, but everyone around them. And I couldn’t see what disturbing new discovery they’d made to justify starting to say this. And there wasn’t any big discovery. Most studies of passive smoking turn up no significant risk. Some of them indicate a small risk. But some of them also indicate a small benefit. And in addition, as someone who had grown up in a world of smokers, the idea that it was dangerous ran counter to personal experience. The children that grew up in that smoky world were perfectly healthy.
These days I think that the medical profession decided to tell a lie. They knew, or thought they knew, that smoking caused lung cancer, and maybe heart disease as well. The fear of this had made a lot of people give up smoking. But a hard core of smokers had refused to be frightened into giving up smoking. And the solution, the doctors (e.g. Sir George Godber) decided, was to multiply the threat a thousand-fold, and start claiming that smokers were killing the people around them. This was a lie. But it was a ‘good’ lie. If telling this lie got the last dead-end smokers to give up smoking, it would be worth it in saved lives.
But I think that this little piece of well-meaning mendacity by the medical profession is going to cost their profession its good name. When people find out that they’ve been lying, trust will vanish. People will stop trusting doctors not just about the dangers of smoking, but about pretty much every danger that doctors tell them about. There will be a collapse in confidence as people realise that they’ve been lied to. It won’t help any that the lie was told in a good cause.
I know what it’s like for people to lose faith in you. Many years ago, when I was at school, I got interested in how people cheated at cards by playing with marked cards. And so I got a  pack of cards, and I wrote a little symbol on the back of each of them to indicate what they were, and invited a friend of mine to play a game of cards. And while I was playing with him, I kept squinting at his cards, trying to make out the little marks I’d made on the back of them. And after a while he said, "Why do you keep looking so closely at my cards?" And he turned them over, and started examining the back of them, and rapidly discovered all the little symbols I’d drawn on the corners. "You’re cheating!!" he shouted. I tried to explain to him that I was only trying to find out how easy it was to cheat at cards by marking them. But it did no good. He got up and walked out. And he never spoke to me again. The really awful thing, though, was he was the oldest and deepest school friend that I had. In one single ill-thought act, I had destroyed a valued, ancient friendship. And when it was gone, I realised there was no way that I could ever put it back together. After all, I had been cheating, even if the reasons why I’d been cheating were not ignoble: there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand how cheating works.
The medical profession now occupy the same role that I played all those years ago. They think they are lying in a good cause. And, who knows, perhaps it is a good cause. But when the truth emerges, as it will, the response of the general public and the doctors’ patients will be exactly the same as that of my lost friend. They’ll get up and walk out. The trust will have be shattered. And it will never be recovered. Whatever benefits that the medical profession may have hoped to gain by lying about and exaggerating the dangers of smoking will be as nothing beside the total collapse in confidence that will follow from people realising that they’ve been lied to.
So I predict a coming catastrophic collapse in the esteem in which the medical profession is held. I don’t know when that collapse will come, but I’d guess that it will be in the next 50 years or so. It will result in calls for greater honesty and integrity and transparency. But it won’t save the medical profession. They’re going to be dirt.
A similar sort of collapse in confidence is also looming with the climate science that has been saying that carbon dioxide emissions ’cause’ global warming in the same way that smoking ’causes’ lung cancer. It’s another little well-meaning lie which is intended to get people to use less energy. But when people find out that this was a lie too, there will be a collapse in confidence in climate science, and most likely in all science.
And if it turns out that European politicians have been telling little white lies about the Lisbon treaty, so as to get their electorates to do what’s good for them, there’ll be a similar collapse in confidence in the political establishment (if it’s possible for confidence to get much worse than it already is).

Most people take authorities on trust. But that trust is easily lost, particularly when it is abused. Two or three years ago I ceased to trust medical authorities. Most people I know still trust them. But it won’t last very much longer, once most people start to find out what I found out, and what anyone will find out if they care to look for themselves.

We are on the brink of multiple collapses in confidence. In the medical profession. In science. In political authority. In every authority in general.

About Frank Davis

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20 Responses to The Coming Collapse of Confidence

  1. Anonymous says:

    You’re wrong…
    Malaria is not caused by a bacterium, it is caused by a parasite belonging to the ‘Plasmodium’ family. A bacterium is a single-celled organism, whereas a parasite is not.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Collapse of confidence
    See this recent Times article: the first mainstream press article I can remember questioning the wisdom of cutting down on salt consumption.

  3. Frank Davis says:

    Re: You’re wrong…
    I’ll take your word for it, and correct it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    S 21
    And when the trust is gone? Typically, engineered famines, re-education centres and what not like S-21. You still think its about smoking. Wake the fuck up.

  5. Frank Davis says:

    Re: S 21
    No, I don’t think it’s just about smoking. It’s just that it’s with the smoking issue that I personally can relate the most.

  6. Anonymous says:

    A sane article (on salt) from The Times!
    I agree with the statement from CASH though:

    “The evidence that links salt to blood pressure is as strong as that linking cigarette smoking to cancer and heart disease,”

    Controlled intervention studies such as MRFIT achieved large decreases in smoking except that lung cancer and heart disease was not reduced compared to the control group. In fact in the MRFIT study, the intervention group experienced 17% more lung cancer than the control group. Although it was not statistically significant.

    “If successful, the reduction to 6 grams a day would have the biggest impact of any public health campaign ever.”

    Sounds familiar. They are so modest and rational, these campaigners.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The thing that gets me with your lung cancer hypothesis, is, that if they have proven certain chemicals are in cigarette smoke (and probably in most smoke) and they have tested these chemicals by exposing rats to them, and found that exposure to these chemicals gives rats cancer, then doesn’t it seem reasonable to suggest there is a risk of lung cancer from smoking?
    As for your collapse of confidence theory, I fear the sheep will always need their shepherd, all they can really do is vote out one party and vote in another not dissimialr one however.

  8. tayles_100 says:

    I agree with what you say about the ‘good’ lies peddled by the scientific community, and I’m sure that people are losing their trust in what they are told. However, that alone won’t be enough to force a change.
    At the moment, there is a cross-party consensus on subjects such as global warming, passive smoking and child safety. I’m sure individual MPs have their own ideas, but their leaders aren’t about to call it all pish and nonsense any time soon.
    Issues such as these enable their advocates to appear concerned and principled. Inevitably a game of one-up-manship ensues, until things reach fever pitch. Then, anyone who shows anything less than fundamentalist approach to the cause – no matter how ridiculous or baseless it may be – will appear reckless and uncaring. Few politicians are willing to take that risk.
    This approach is built around a paternalistic understanding of the role of government. It is a view approved of, and an often participated in, by a self-styled intellectual elite. This group is essentially a section of the middle classes who think they, or people like them, should have a say in the running of things. To quote Antony Jay, they see themselves as clever people in a stupid world, upright people in a corrupt world and compassionate people in a brutal world. They think that by presuming to tell people how they should live they are simply doing their duty as more enlightened, privileged souls.
    These are the journalists, scientists, experts and members of the metropolitan dinner party set that our political leaders are always trying to court. It is their disapproval they fear and their support they crave. Over the past decade or so, they and the government, have redfined virtue as a desire to eradicate risk from the lives of others. Their willingness to impose authoritarian laws and nationalise people’s lives is, as far as they are concerned, a measure of their compassion. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.
    What I’m trying to say is that as long as our politicians value the opinion of the chattering classes over that of the common voter, the consensus on the smoking ban, global warming and so on, will continue. Not only must this problem be tackled, but we must take a serious look at the modern definition of virtue.

  9. Frank Davis says:

    They’ve been able to show in animal studies that all sorts of things are carcinogenic if they are painted onto skin or tissues. Alcohol is a class A carcinogen, for example. But they’ve never been able to get animals to get lung cancer from smoking. Sir Richard Doll admitted this in the McTear v. Imperial Tobacco trial of 2003. I’d always supposed that all those rabbits I saw puffing away on cigarettes in labs all got lung cancer. But it seems they didn’t.

  10. Frank Davis says:

    As for collapsing confidence, there are a number of historical examples. Protestantism in the 16th century grew out of a collapse of confidence or belief in the Roman pontiff. There were very good reasons for it, given that the papacy had become horribly corrupt, and was making pots of money by selling indulgences. This is a good example because the Pope was a spiritual ‘shepherd’. The Protestants who broke away from Rome generally didn’t set up an alternative ‘shepherd’ autority, but demanded study, discussion, and self-examination.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Is the world we live in becoming more corrupt though, or is it just becoming more transparent thanks to www?

  12. Frank Davis says:

    I agree with what you say, but while I think that there’s a political dimension to it all, I’m not sure that’s what lies at the root of it.
    The war on smoking is in large part being driven by the medical establishment. In many ways we have a complete smoking ban in Britain because Sir Liam Donaldson wanted one. And doctors have enormous prestige. “Doctor’s orders” are a kind of advice which is all but unquestionable. This genuflection before medical advice is a powerful trait in our culture. We don’t question doctors in the way that we question all sorts of other people. Perhaps it’s because medicine is pretty much a closed book to most people. We don’t have even an elementary medical education. Or at least I didn’t. What I know about medicine is what I’ve learned by reading myself. The result is an uncritical acceptance of medical advice. If people read abit of the history of medicine, they’d find out that the medical profession has been as much wrong about the causes of disease than it’s been right about them. In fact it’s generally been more wrong than right. And this isn’t ‘political’ in any sense. Or rather, politicians have the same attitudes to doctors as the most people: uncritical acceptance.
    Much the same applies with science, which is a closed book to anyone who missed out on a science education. Once again, people tend to uncritically accept what ‘scientists’ or ‘researchers’ tell them, because they have no means of critically evaluating scientific claims.
    The ‘metropolitan dinner party set’ is largely composed of people who have little or no medical or science education, and who uncritically accept medical authorities.
    One of the results is that authority tends to become invested in medical or scientific priesthoods, who issue authoritative statements about smoking, diets, global warming, etc. In addition there are any number pseudo-scientific disciplines like sociology, or social psychology, which are equally full of self-styled authorities issuing authoritative statements and guidance. Very often these people have a socialist model of society, in which they see it as their business to guide ‘society’ (i.e. other people) in the right direction, or what they have convinced themselves is the right direction, because they are ‘experts’ who know much more about it all than ordinary people.

  13. Frank Davis says:

    Interesting question. Personally I think that both the medical profession and climate science have become deeply corrupt, and beholden to political and economic interests which should not concern them. But I only know this because of the internet – where I’ve been able to look at things like the London Hospitals study, and the British Doctors study, and all sorts of other things which I’d have been hard pressed to discover otherwise. But for the internet, I’d have a different set of opinions.
    The rise of the internet is very much like the appearance of the Gutenberg printing press (Caxton in England), which allowed people to have their own copies of the Bible, and then translations of the Bible into their own languages. The Reformation in large part grew out of all those people reading the bible for themselves, and debating it among themselves, and questioning the orthodox interpretations as supplied by the Roman Catholic church. When people are presented with information themselves, rather than having it mediated through authorities, they will draw their own conclusions, which threatens authorities of every sort. (This wasn’t the argument I used in the piece above. Instead I was arguing that unquestioned and unquestionable authorities become corrupt, and misuse their authority to pull the wool over people’s eyes. And that’s a slightly different thing.)

  14. Frank Davis says:

    To complete the point that I was trying to make, it seems to me that authorities of one sort and another have indeed become corrupt – but it’s only now that it has become possible for people to see this, thanks to the internet. Authorities became corrupt because they were not answerable to anyone, but this would seem to be changing now.

  15. Anonymous says:

    How is it that you manage to reflect so accurately exactly what I’m thinking?

  16. Anonymous says:

    As someone who works in a local authority, I do think there is a tendancy to blame corruption and conspiracy when groupthink, laziness and ignorance are often the more usual culprits.

  17. Anonymous says:

    From Junican.
    What convinced me that there was something wrong with the hypothesis that smoking caused lung cancer was a TV programme many years ago. A ‘doctor’ produced a lung which was cancerous. It was black and ugly.
    But, at no point in the programme did the ‘doctor’ isolate the CAUSE of the lung cancer. Nor have I ever seen since any actual factual evidence, in the sense of actual CARBON FIBRES (or whatever), in cancerous lungs which might actually indicate anything to do with tobacco smoke.
    It must be true that there is no such FACTUAL evidence since, if there were, we would never hear the last of it. We would be absolutely bombarded with the actual physical evidence. We would be shown, again and again, microscopic evidence of tobacco residues in cancerous cells.
    It is really important to know why tobacco ‘residue’ is not visible in the cancerous lungs. It bothers me that politicians do not ask these questions.
    Etc, etc……

  18. tayles_100 says:

    What I find interesting is that if you look back to the early to mid 1990s, we witnessed a major rejection of traditional authority figures. The Left made a concerted effort to undermine the traditional establishment, its ideas, its institutions and its authority. With no Cold War enemies to show us what the alternatives looked like, the Left was able to pass off its ideology as a struggle against years of oppression by a privileged elite, whose opinions and standards had no more legitimacy than any other, and whose only interest was in protecting the advantages enjoyed by themselves and certain favoured groups.
    Policemen, teachers and doctors were just some of the public figures whose authority was undermined during this putsch. Those sections of the Left that dreamt of a something-for-nothing wonderland, where we could act as we liked without fear of criticism or consequence, saw these instruments of the old ruling elite as oppressive and prejudiced. Who were they to tell us what to do, to judge us and place conditions on our freedom?
    Relativism was the flavour of the day, teaching us that there was no right or wrong, better or worse – only difference, with each opinion or choice as valid as any other. Traditional knowledge, as exercised by teachers and doctors, was merely a bourgeois construct designed to undermine the self-esteem of pupils and patients. Nothing should challenge the idea that we are all perfectly formed, can do no wrong, and are deserving of all the reward and respect in the world merely for drawing breath.
    Under New Labour, however, these old authority figures were reeducated as enforcers of their ideology. The police, for instance, are now less concerned with catching criminals than they are with enforcing the dictates of political correctness. An army of coppers will descend on a drunk student who calls a police horse gay, while burglars are let off scot free, on the basis that they are victims of an unjust social order.
    Doctors are increasingly unable to exercise their professional judgment. They are now checklist-ticking preachers of New Labour health fascism. Scientists are now less likely to deal in empirical evidence than they are to peddle bogus science to support the likes of smoking bans and climate change policies.
    Having been marginalised by the Left in the early part of the 1990s, these professions have taken the extended hand of government as their only means of regaining some of the authority they once had. It might mean a loss of integrity and self-respect but that is compensated for by a gain in power and influence. Vermin like Sir Liam Donaldson are simply ambitious individuals exploiting the current political climate.
    This development tells us a lot about the Left. It will not tolerate views that differ from its own. It will not tolerate anything that stands between itself and the people. Every every process, tradition and mediating institution that allows people to exert sovereignty over their own lives, must be removed until they have absolute power over us.
    Then, when they have us at gunpoint, they make us dance to their own ridiculous tune, passing laws that have no reasonable basis and showing scant regard for our freedom and self-determination. Yet that is their precise point: a show of power. The more obscene and irrational these laws are and the more they fill us with impotent rage, the more we are reminded that they are the master and we are their servant.
    This perversion of the relationship between the state and the individual has got to be challenged. We have allowed a power-hungry, controlling and axe-grinding political and intellectual class to subvert this relationship – ostensibly in the name of ‘justice’ – so that they can strut about the world like philosopher-kings. It’s disgusting and I, for one, have had enough of it.
    Incidentally, if we can stop Tony Blair from becoming EU president, that would be a step in the right direction. That man is king rat.

  19. Frank Davis says:

    I don’t think there are any carbon fibres in tobacco smoke. Benzapyrene is one of the carcinogens in tobacco smoke, but in amounts too low to pose much of a threat.
    The ‘science’ really boils down to saying that lots of the people who get lung cancer are smokers, so smoking causes lung cancer. Yet no studies of smoking animals has produced lung cancer.
    There are lots of reasons to doubt the smoking-lung-cancer hypothesis. I think that if smoking hadn’t been something that hadn’t been condemned for centuries by countless moralists, but was newly regarded as evil, it might be more plausible. But when you find people condemning smoking long before it was ever associated with lung cancer, it’s pretty obvious that the lung cancer link just provided another way of bashing smoking. If it’s ever shown conclusively that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, smoking will still be condemned by some people. The same people who condemn alcohol, etc.

  20. Frank Davis says:

    I used to work for Westminster City Council many years ago. There didn’t see to be anything corrupt about it. But a few years later it got embroiled in all sorts of stuff under the leadership of Dame Shirley Porter whom the Guardian described as “…the most corrupt British political figure in living memory, with the possible exception of Robert Maxwell”.

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