As Climategate unfolds, I’m fascinated by how rapidly public opinion can swing so rapidly, and have been thinking how people form opinions.
Many years ago, I began to wonder whether anyone’s opinion about anything was just the sum total of all the opinions they’d heard expressed about it, for or against. So if you’d heard 100 people say “the sun goes round the earth’, and 60 people say “the earth goes round the sun”, you’d be broadly of the former opinion. There was at least one slight modification that I added, and this was that people’s opinions were given different weights. The opinions of people who were trusted, or who were authorities, or friends, were ascribed higher weights than those of most other people. And people who were distrusted, or ignorant, or enemies, were ascribed lower than average weights, and sometimes even given negative weights. So, for example, if Nasty Harry said that “the earth goes round the sun”, and he was an ignorant dickhead, negative weighting of his opinion would increase your conviction that the opposite was probably true.
And how did you learn to give more weight to what some people said than others? In precisely the same way as you formed all your other opinions. The more you discovered that Edward the Swot almost always got the right answers to difficult mathematics questions (like, what is 127 times 289?), the more highly you rated his opinion, about mathematical problems leastways. And how did you know what the right answers were? Because the maths teacher wrote them on the blackboard, and he was God. Which meant that his opinion had such a high positive weighting that his opinion outweighed that of the whole class, Edward the Swot and Nasty Harry included.
And how certain you were about anything depended on just how strongly one-sided your own balance of received opinion on it happened to be. If you’d only heard the same opinion all your life, it would appear as an unquestionable certainty, a fact of life. And if you’d heard many conflicting opinions, you’d be not at all certain.
I toyed for a while with producing a geographical matrix made up of lots of different people regularly expressing opinions to each other, wondering whether fads and fashions of one sort or other might propagate through these societies in waves, or maybe stabilise in some fixed opinion. So one day all the women would wear miniskirts with tasselled hemlines, and then the next day they go back to wide frilly skirts.
This way of thinking about opinions explained why kids who grew up in Catholic families were usually Catholics, and kids who grew up in Burnley were usually Burnley supporters, and so on. They’d spent their lives surrounded by people regularly singing “Ohhh Burnley is Wonderful” So they had pretty strong opinions about Burnley F.C. And when you have these sorts of strongly re-inforced opinions, you’re inclined to believe that people who don’t agree with you (like Watford fans) are misguided or stupid, and you’ll say so in a very loud voice when you encounter them, in order to educate them about the true facts of life. And they in turn might strongly disagree, and reply with a hail of re-educational coins and bottles.
It also explained why kids were highly impressionable. And that was because kids had heard very few opinions about anything. So it only needed somebody with a high weighting, like a parent or teacher, to tell them the opposite and change their minds. And why their minds would promptly get changed back again when their pals at school told them the opposite again. Adults who had heard millions of opinions throughout their life weren’t so easily impressionable. They were set in their ways. It would take a few million further expressed opinions to change their mind about anything at all.
And it also explained how propaganda that repeated the same message over and over again also worked to change people’s minds. It too got added in, and it had extra weight if it came from people who were highly rated, like film stars or rock stars.
What’s obviously inaccurate about the idea is that it portrays people as being entirely passive, like planets going round the sun under the pull of gravitation, with opinions which aren’t really their own opinions at all. And this isn’t true. Or at least it isn’t entirely true. Because people can themselves change their own minds. They’re not entirely passive recipients of other people’s ideas. They can look at ideas critically, in their own right. For example, even if everybody tells you that 127 x 289 is 36,702, if you work it out for yourself, and you keep on finding it comes to 36,703, you’re quite likely to stop believing people who tell you otherwise, particularly if you know that none of them have ever tried to work it out for themselves. So if 10 people tell you that the answer is 36,702, but you work it out for yourself 10 times to be 36,703, you’ll slowly start believing yourself, and stop believing everybody else. And in the process, you’ll probably rate your own opinion more highly.
So the picture of opinion-formation, of just averaging what everybody else says, doesn’t work with people who think for themselves.
But then, thinking takes time. And not everybody has the time to think through everything for themselves. And so even people who think for themselves about lots of things, like whether the sun goes round the earth or vice versa, may not have thought about whether women should wear tasselled miniskirts or whether to support Burnley F.C. And if they’ve not thought about these things themselves, their opinion will be the average of what everybody thinks. So Isaac Newton, thinking for himself day after day in his Cambridge college room about the motion of the planets, and with nobody disagreeing with him because he never talked to anybody else about it, developed some deeply held convictions about them. But he probably supported Cambridge United. And he probably also believed that women’s skirts should be of ankle length, with a strip of embroidered flowers down one side, just so. And furthermore, he was probably highly impressionable about these matters, precisely because he spent all his time thinking about planets and gravity and stuff, and very little time sitting in pubs gassing about the dire state of football in Cambridge, and the impropriety of modern women’s skirts.
So, while people can change their minds about things, they very seldom actually do. So most of the time, however independently-minded they might be, most of what they think will be what everybody else thinks. Ask me my opinion about more or less anything, and you’ll most likely get a pretty run-of-the-mill response, because I’ve not thought about most things. Ask me about smoking and tobacco, and you’ll get something quite different. I’ve been thinking a lot about that in recent years, and slowly changing my mind.
And I’ve been thinking about global warming too. I started out with no strong opinion either way. But I became a sceptic the second I heard Jon Snow announce on Channel 4 news one evening early in 2007 that “the debate is over”. To me, that meant that climate science had ceased to be a science, and had instead become a secular religion. Nor did it help that Jon Snow went on to say, in the same breath, “Humans are to blame”. How like a religion to lay blame at the feet of us sinners! My good opinion of climate science collapsed. And so did my opinion of Jon Snow, who was, I thought, one of the UK’s better news presenters. It’s one reason why I no longer have a TV set.
Which brings us back to Global Warming and the University of East Anglia and Professor Phil Jones. Here’s someone who’s obviously been living in a kind of Burnley. And what’s happened there is the reputation of Phil Jones and co has just taken a tremendous hit. The weighting of their opinion has just fallen from university professorial heights to zero, or maybe even gone negative. They were found, at least on first inspection, to have been cooking the books and making stuff up, and their opinions now aren’t worth spit. And as the news about this has been propagating in a wave around the world, first driven by sceptic blogs, but now the mainstream media too, there’s been a tidal wave of rising disbelief as everybody adjusts their weightings of what climate scientists say sharply downwards (and at the same time marks their weighting of the opinions of sceptics upwards). Which has meant that formerly derided (“flat-earther”)sceptics are now getting a hearing as never before.
And this leads on to smoking and smoking bans, where the situation isn’t much different than in Burnley either. With global warming, the alarmists managed to convince each other that a possibility was a certainty. But when it comes to smoking, Everybody Knows That Smoking Causes Lung Cancer. It’s all they’ve heard all their lives, and nobody has ever disagreed. And that’s a recipe for total certainty. The debate actually is over, to the extent that any debate is ever over. And on top of this certainty about lung cancer, there has been erected the further edifice of the danger of secondhand smoke. And on top of that the perils of thirdhand smoke, and so on. And none of it is questioned. Which is why smoking bans are never in the news. Nobody is doubting the increasingly wild claims made by the antismoking movement.
Or hardly anybody. But in many ways, these increasingly wild claims themselves generate scepticism. It’s one thing to believe that smoking causes lung cancer, because it’s a very plausible idea. But the notion that secondhand smoking is just as dangerous, and perhaps even more dangerous, may stretch credulity too far. And for someone like me, who was initially only mildly inclined to believe that smoking caused lung cancer, these further claims were too much. It’s a bit like telling Burnley fans that not only is their football club the best football club in England, but it’s the best football club in the world. It’s almost as implausible and offensive as telling them that it’s the worst. Overstating something is almost as bad as understating it. The antismoking movement has been generating sceptics by overstating its case.
The multi-storey edifice of antismoking is like a big wave coming ashore on a beach. When you see it in the distance it’s not very high, but as it gets closer it gets higher and higher. And it keeps getting higher until you begin to wonder whether it’ll just go on getting higher and higher indefinitely. But then it breaks, and the bigger the wave, the bigger the roar as it collapses, and the deeper the ensuing flood of boiling foam rushing up the beach. The wave of global warming hit a rock: but for the Climategate emails, it’d still be getting higher. But the wave of antismoking is just getting higher and higher, and has got some of us running up the beach in panic away from it. But it will break. That edifice of supposition piled upon mad supposition is simply not sustainable for very long. Maybe it’ll just break of its own accord. But when it does, it’s going to be with a far louder crash than the wave of global warming.
P.S. I was halfway through writing this when I learned that there was a tidal wave crossing the Pacific ocean from Chile. The rather wonderful thing about it is that people ahead of it are being told it’s coming. I hope they all survive.