The more I think about passive smoking and global warming, the more I think that we’ve entered a new religious era. It’s not what you know that matters. It’s what you believe. Or don’t believe.
The old religion, which in the much of the western world was Christianity, has been sidelined, and a new bunch of priests and bishops and cardinals have stepped into their shoes. They are scientists and experts of one sort or other. They don’t use the Bible to justify their doctrines, but the modern canon of mathematics and science.
Somehow or other, the old bunch of priests lost credibility. The congregations melted away from their churches. People stopped believing in the old authorities. They instead paid much more attention to doctors and scientists who had a track record of getting things right, from preventing or curing dozens of previously intractable diseases, to building ships and planes and cars using the extraordinary technologies they had developed. Clear moral guidance was lacking.
The solution to the deepening moral vacuum was simple. The doctors and the scientists became the new priests. They used the credibility of their science to take over the vacant moral leadership of society.
And their message is much the same as before. “Repent, for the End of the World is nigh!” Stop smoking, else be damned to endure lung cancer, yeah even until the end of thy days. Stop burning oil and gas, lest verily ye be consumed by Fire from the Sky. You carry on scaremongering just like the previous scaremongers did.
Your family doctor has replaced your local vicar. Sir Liam Donaldson had taken over the job of the Archbishop of Canterbury until he stepped down last year as Government Health Officer. In the USA, the Surgeon General, C Everett Koop, started wearing his admiral’s uniform, and so too does the current Surgeon General. It helps to have a snappy blue chasuble if you’re an archbishop preaching damnation and hellfire.
The UN and the WHO are a new Vatican, and the UN Secretary General is a modern pope. The UN International Panel on Climate Change is a modern Council of Nicaea, thrashing out a modern Nicene Creed. That council was convened by the emperor Constantine, when the new religion of Christianity was being adopted by the Roman state. It was necessary to find a consensus of opinion among the bickering Christian bishops and theologians back then. And it’s just as important to find a consensus among climate scientists today.
What this new priesthood is exploiting are the grey areas on the borderlands of science. Nobody really knows what causes lung cancer, but if it’s possible with a little statistical chicanery to plausibly lay the blame on tobacco, nobody can conclusively prove the matter one way or the other. Nobody really knows how the climate works, but if a little scientific legerdemain can be used to indict carbon dioxide, nobody can conclusively prove it one way or the other. Nobody really knows. And when nobody really knows, all that’s left is belief.
And either you believe what the scientists – the scientific consensus – say about tobacco and carbon dioxide, or you don’t. It can hardly be said to be a crime to place one’s trust in the scientists and doctors who made such tremendous real progress over recent centuries – before they decided to become priests and politicians.
Over on Smoking out the Truth:
Is it a crime to place one’s trust in doctors and epidemiologists? Not really. They’re the ones who’re supposed to know, after all.
But, in the end, is such trust any different from blind faith in the teachings of the Church? In the end, it all boils down to trusting what someone else says, whether they be a scientist or statistician or climate scientist or bishop or theologian or pope. And trusting and believing somebody else very often entails disbelieving yourself.
If I’m sceptical about the reputed dangers of tobacco and carbon dioxide, it’s partly because these claims contradict my own personal experience. Nobody in my family has died of lung cancer, or any form of cancer at all. My 60-a-day father remained as strong as an ox until more or less the day he died at age 79 after a series of strokes. My hard-smoking grandfather died aged 71 after a bout of flu. The only person I ever met who was dying of lung cancer was a non-smoker.
The notion that secondhand tobacco smoke is any threat to anyone’s health is also contradicted by personal experience. It never happened. Ever. It’s so implausible as to hardly need saying at all. Why should I start believing something that I’ve never believed in my entire life?
Same with global warming. The English climate today doesn’t seem very much different from what it has been for the past 60 years. From time to time it’s been slightly freakishly hot. But just a month back it was freakishly cold. Why should I start believing now that the whole world is warming when it’s something I’ve never believed in my entire life? To do so would mean ceasing to trust my own judgment, and starting to trust the judgment of self-styled experts.
It would’ve been different if friend after smoking friend had died of lung cancer. Or if ambulances had showed up regularly at smoky pubs to cart away the dying. And if I’d dispensed with woollen clothes and central heating, and watched the grass turn brown. But those things didn’t happen either.
And furthermore I’ve stopped believing the scientists and the doctors. I think they’re all trying to use their authority and expertise to pull the wool over my eyes. I think that they’re all pretending to know more than the science has so far discovered in those foggy borderlands of science. I think they’re pretending to be more certain than they actually are. They exaggerate. These days they even tell outright lies.
But I can understand why lots of people still believe them, even if I don’t. Maybe those people know lots of smokers who’ve died slow, agonising deaths from lung cancer. Maybe they were present when an ambulance showed up to take someone from a smoky pub to Accident & Emergency at their local hospital. Maybe they remember a bitterly cold climate in their childhood, and hot weather last summer. Maybe their personal experience doesn’t contradict the dire warnings of scientific authorities, and it’s easy for them to believe them.
E.g. Duncan Bannatyne:
No, it wasn’t “infinite wisdom”. It was instead that Bannantyne’s personal experience agreed with the authoritative medical consensus. There was no conflict. It all fitted together. And created complete certainty.
By contrast, someone like me endures conflict and uncertainty, because my experience does not concur with authority. There’s no certainty, but instead an ever-shifting stalemate in a tug of war.
What’s remarkable, if anything, is not that so many people trust what medical and scientific authorities tell them, but that so many people don’t trust them. Twenty or thirty years ago, everybody trusted these authorities.
There is a growing epidemic – a pandemic – of distrust sweeping the world. Not just in doctors with respect to tobacco, but in doctors with respect to alcohol and food and almost everything else. MMR vaccine and swine flu being a couple of examples.
Distrust of climate scientists is rising sharply, and with it distrust of all of science.
And who trusts politicians these days? Who trusts any of them at all?
What’s remarkable about these times is perhaps not so much the waves of scaremongering (about passive smoking and global warming and global terrorism), but the deepening public loss of faith in scaremongering authorities. People simply stop believing scaremongers.
The new IPCC Nicene Creed of Global Warming is being rejected almost as soon as the ink has dried on the paper.
Where does it end?
In a complete loss of trust and faith in all authorities. People will fall back on their own judgment, and the judgment of trusted friends. And when people don’t trust governments, governments must fall. And when people stop trusting scientists, scientists will stop getting grants of public money. When people stop trusting formerly trusted authorities, it’s time for new authorities.
Insincerity and artifice cannot persist indefinitely. In the coming era, it will be honesty and trustworthiness that people will demand, and which it will be for politicians and scientists and doctors to step up and provide. There will be new politicians and scientists struggling to find credibility in a climate of pervasive suspicion and distrust. They’ll have to be new ones, because the old ones have comprehensively blown it.
The era of propaganda and spin and fashion is coming to an end. The coming era will be one in which people speak honestly and openly and plainly. It will be one in which both sides of the argument will be heard. In which a political correctness which prevents open and honest debate will retreat. In which nothing is stage-managed to reach a predetermined outcome.
It will be a time when the scaremongering stops, and all the scares lose their force, because nobody believes a word of them anymore. And the world will once again seem serene and placid. Nobody will worry about global warming, because there isn’t any. Nobody will worry about the threat of passive smoking, because there isn’t one. Not in their personal experience, anyway. It takes experts with statistics and charts to conjure up these threats out of nothing.
It will be a giddy time. It will be a scary time in which, in the absence of guiding authority, nobody will know what anyone else believes, or even what they themselves believe.