I remember when I first heard the idea of a public smoking ban first suggested back in 2004 by Sir Charles George, then-president of the BMA, I thought that it was a mad idea dreamt up by mad doctors, and the UK government would just quietly bury it. And if the government didn’t bury it, parliament would. And years later, people would cite it as a prime example of why checks and balances were needed. “Do you remember when all those mad doctors started calling for smoking to be banned?” they’d say, with a knowing grin.
So it was with genuine disbelief and incomprehension that I watched the UK parliament vote a general public smoking ban into law in February 2006, and that law come into force on 1 July 2007.
It seemed insane then. And it still seems insane now.
And I’ve come to believe that we are living in a time of madness, in which more or less any crazy law can be enacted. I wouldn’t be too surprised, for example, if there was a law enacted requiring people to use their left hands (and left feet) more often, because ‘scientific studies’ had shown that in a predominantly right-handed society, left hands and feet tended to atrophy, and the solution was to exercise their left hands/arms/legs more often. The law would be hailed by doctors and Equal Opportunities outreach organisations as a progressive measure. There’d be days of the week when everything had to be done left-handed (including writing), and there’d be stiff penalties for non-compliance.
Think up any crazy law you like, and it seems there’ll be people who’ll advocate it and campaign for it, and there’ll be MPs who’ll vote for it.
For I seem to have a built-in baloney-meter, or B-meter, which provides me with an instant reading of anything. Present it with something, and it’ll produce a reading somewhere on the B-A-L-O-N-E-Y scale, with highly plausible ideas barely even registering a B, and completely barking mad ideas pushing the needle all the way up to Y. And the idea that secondhand smoke poses any sort of significant health risk to anyone has always been right up there at Y – i.e. complete baloney.
The global warming scare – the idea that anthropogenic carbon dioxide iin the atmosphere is causing catastrophic global warming – is another one with a pretty high reading on my B-meter. It’s just nudging E.
There’s a few other things, like HARRP – the idea that radio transmitter arrays can cause earthquakes (most people have never heard of this) – which also hit Y on my B-meter. And more or less any health scare about food or alcohol or lifestyle usually registers as E or Y.
Other things don’t register quite so high. The European Common Market (the EEC) barely registered as B on my B-meter. It seemed a very reasonable and sensible idea. But the current EU superstate idea is up at about N. Not completely barking mad, but getting there.
But, regardless of what I might think, there are plenty of people who believe all of these things. They believe that secondhand smoke poses a serious health threat, and that human-generated CO2 is warming the planet, and that radio waves can cause earthquakes, and the EU superstate is a really great political innovation. Such people seem to believe absolutely everything.
And I wonder if they’ve got their B-meters turned on. Or whether their B-meters have been recalibrated so that nothing seems like baloney. Or whether they’ve got any B-meters at all.
In some ways, a B-meter is simply the sum total of anybody’s knowledge and experience. The new idea (SHS, AGW, HARRP, EU) is simply assessed for ‘degree of fit’ with other ideas. Either it fits in with everything else you know, and the needle barely flickers up to B, or it doesn’t fit at all, and the needle whacks up to Y.
Of course, B-meters aren’t foolproof. If you don’t know much about anything, more or less any idea will seem plausible. Which is why kids are easy to fool with ideas like Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy. But it’s much harder to fool adults who have built up a considerable body of knowledge.
And also, B-meters can be plain wrong. For example, most probably when people first heard of the idea that the earth was round, or that the (round) earth goes round the sun rather than vice versa, their B-meters hit Y. Because that simply didn’t fit with their idea of how the world worked, and what was possible and what was impossible.
This is quite a good example (and an important example) because it’s a case where people gradually learned to ignore their B-meters and trust the expert astronomers and scientists and mathematicians instead. And this is maybe somewhere near the root of the problem we have today. Because all somebody has to do these days in order to be believed is for the people making some claim or other to present themselves as scientists or doctors or ‘experts’, and everyone will switch off (or ignore) their B-meters. And this means that, so long as the people telling them stuff have got the right expert scientific credentials, people will believe whatever they’re told by them – even if it’s actually complete baloney. Experts are trusted, and scepticism is discounted. And we enter into a time of madness, when people believe all sorts of crazy stuff.
But people like me still have their B-meters connected and working and sitting on top of the dashboard. And our B-meters are registering more and more complete baloney. And we keep tapping on the dial, wondering if they’re still working properly or not.
Ultimately, regardless of what anyone (including me) may or may not believe, the truth will be played out in the real world. Lots of people may believe that your new-fangled airplane will fly, but the real test will come when you’re sitting out on the runway, and you gun the solar-powered wing-flappers up to max, and start pedalling hard. The proof – as they say – is in the pudding. Either it will fly, or it won’t. That’s the acid test.
And the acid test of whether secondhand smoke was or was not a genuine health threat will come when the human longevity figures start rolling in. Either people will start living a lot longer than they used to, because secondhand smoke really was a health threat. Or it’ll make no difference at all. Or smoking bans will lower human longevity, and people will die earlier than when they were surrounded by tobacco smoke. And my guess (because I don’t think tobacco smoke poses any health threat at all) is that smoking bans will reduce longevity – because making smokers stand outside is likely to kill smokers earlier than if they’d stayed inside, and bankrupting pubs and throwing people out of work doesn’t improve the survival chances of pub proprietors.
Same with AGW. When everything runs on sunlight and windmills, either life will be better than it was, or it’ll be worse. And my guess is that it’ll be much, much worse.
And also the EU. Either it will prove to be a far-sighted political innovation which greatly improves the lives of countless million Europeans, or it won’t be. And my guess, for what it’s worth (it’s just my B-meter reading on the whole thing, after all) is that it won’t be.
And if I’m right about all of these – or about any of them at all – then I’d predict that we’re rapidly approaching a time when everyone will start switching their B-meters back on, and will stop believing what experts tell them. And people will start saying things like, “I never really believed that secondhand smoke posed any health threat, but everyone else seemed to believe it, so I went along with it, and said nothing.”
For if SHS really is baloney, and AGW is baloney, and the EU is baloney too, then it’ll show people that they can’t trust doctors, and that they can’t trust physicists, and that they can’t trust financial whizz kids either. And having passed through a disastrous time of madness, in which everyone readily believed everything, and paid the price for it, we will enter a new world in which nobody readily believes anything, and nobody trusts anyone, and any claim made by anyone about anything will be met with the deepest scepticism. And in that world even well-established beliefs – like whether the earth is flat or goes round the sun – will be subjected to searching re-examination.
I seem to have got there early. I spend a lot of time re-examining things I believe, things I’ve taken on trust without having looked too closely at them. It’s part of the reason why I’ve been building computer simulation models of the planets in the solar system, or of multiplying bacteria, or drops of water hitting the ground. Because I want to work these things out for myself, and not rely on ‘experts’ to tell me, and take everything on trust. It’s my response to living in a time of madness.