Living in a Time of Madness

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.

About Frank Davis

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19 Responses to Living in a Time of Madness

  1. “They believe that secondhand smoke poses a serious health threat”

    I must confess, I used to believe that because I had not looked for evidence and simply believed the MSM noise on the subject. Anyway as a non-smoking libertarian, I believed people were free to smoke if they wanted and innkeepers free to allow or ban smoking according to what they thought best for their business.

    Anyway a few noisy non-smokers were making a fuss in 2007 and I fancied the evidence had probably been hyped a bit, so I looked for it and was simply staggered to find there wasn’t any! I saw the famous 50 year study for the American Cancer society by those two Yank doctors (I am sure you know the one) which showed no link and was appalled to see that they were villified for producing the ‘wrong’ results. I kinda lost some innnocence that day. I still don’t smoke and still oppose the ban. Apart from anything else, if you can ban lawful products on the basis of prejudice, where does that end?

  2. karenthefirst says:

    “Or whether their B-meters have been recalibrated so that nothing seems like baloney.”

    That’s a very good description of what modern education is for.

  3. XX But, regardless of what I might think, there are plenty of people who believe all of these things. XX
    There appears to be a pattern. They do not believe in one or two things on your meter, but once they get gaught by “global warming”, they appear to go all out on all the balloney they can find.

    The same people who are anti nuclear, are also anti smokers, Global warming prophets, food/adative maniacs, and whatever else will fit on their plate.

    It is a job lot. Like Sky cabel, you can not pick and choose. You want the film channel, you get the sport trash as well, like it or not.

  4. garyk30 says:


    That implies the possibility of genuine anger.

    I feel that ‘Insanity’ of ‘Raving utter Lunacy’ is more to the point!!!!

    Less smoking is associated with there being smaller increases in the life expectancy.

  5. Its all falling apart,Obama jusy asked congress for another 1.2 trillion in deficit spending!

  6. Frank this should compliment your story today:

    Why medical science often gets it wrong

    There are a number of ways medical studies can go off the rails – countless ways, in fact. Here are just a few:

    Confirmation bias

    This is the tendency to give more attention to data that support our beliefs and to ignore that which contradicts our beliefs. When researchers have been studying a certain topic their whole careers and become biased, they might cherry pick data and (consciously or not) set up their studies in ways that will give them results to back up what they have already come to believe.

    Read more:

  7. Why the U.S. was downgraded:
    • U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
    • Fed budget: $3,820,000,000,000
    • New debt: $ 1,650,000,000,000
    • National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
    • Recent budget cuts: $ 38,500,000,000
    Let’s now remove 8 zeros and pretend it’s a household budget:
    • Annual family income: $21,700
    • Money the family spent: $38,200
    • New debt on the credit card: $16,500
    • Outstanding balance on the credit card: $142,710
    • Total budget cuts: $385
    Got it?

  8. I’m of the opinion that it isn’t madenss but natural human behaviour, stemming in some way from religion.
    I think humans need to have a common beleif. A core belief that is unchangeable and shared by the people around them. Humans have had deep religious beleifs since the dawn of mankind, as this has enabled them to make sense of things they don’t understand.
    It’s only in the last fifty or so years that religion has ceased to play such an important part of life. A mere blink of an eye in human history. I don’t think the core beleif of man can just disappear, but instead it’s been replaced for many people by new beleifs.
    You had anti communism / capitalism during the cold war, followed by the environmental movement after the end of the cold war, and the beginning of the beleif in global warming which quickly followed. Now we have the public health movement.
    I think that people are trying to replace a lost ‘faith’ with other new faiths because the human soul needs something to beleive in.
    Some people however, have no need for any of that. They’ve existed through history too, and I like to think I’m one of them :-)

    • Frank Davis says:

      I agree with you, actually. I think that anti-smoking, anti-alcohol, anti-fat, environmental Greenery, and all the rest of it, actually is a religious phenomenon. And I think that my response to it is also in many ways a religious response (I often describe pubs as secular churches – and the River in Devon that used to be my local pub for a long time was even partly kitted out with church furniture, with a lectern with a Book of Common Prayer open on it). Furthermore, the Prohibitionist War on Alcohol a century ago was very much an overtly religious movement, with church involvement. Simply because the overt ‘religious’ trappings may get peeled away (as they largely have been with the War on Tobacco), the underlying impulses remain the same.

      We remain as ‘religious’ as we ever were, even if we don’t go to church. Indeed, in someone like Richard Dawkins one can see all the hallmarks of an intolerant religious zealot, even if he is a self-proclaimed atheist.

      Much the same could be said of any Communist cast in the mould of Marx or Lenin or Castro. Theirs also was a religious belief, even if it was was dressed up as ‘science’.

      We Western moderns like to see ourselves as enlightened and objective (like Richard Dawkins), but unfortunately we are really only a short step removed from our witch-hunting, heretic-burning, Inquisitional ancestors.

      • Ya Frank the religion of insanity…………these nut cases wanna be believers they just had to give up all rational thought like JIM JONES congregation. But on the nazi side heres some of what they did to get the bible involved:

        Faith United: Disparate Faith Groups Come Together Against Big Tobacco

        In 2005, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and leaders from many different religious denominations launched a national campaign — Faith United Against Tobacco — to mobilize the faith community across the country to support proven solutions to reduce smoking.

        Faith groups involved in Faith United include, among others, United Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, National Council of Churches, Seventh Day Adventists, American Muslim Foundation, Southern Baptist Convention, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, Church Women United, Church of the Brethren and Islamic Society of North America.

        We were involved in Prohibition and against pornography and gambling as predatory enterprises. Fighting tobacco use also fits well with Christian and other faith groups’ teaching in general that the body is a holy temple.

        And Ive seen plenty of it in kentucky from the radical righeous scumbags……and my grand dad was a peticostal holiness preacher….but he never condemned any of us for smoking!

      • waltc says:

        Robert Stone makes the same point in his phenomenal novel, “A Flag For Sunrise.” All Causes are the same (Catholicism=Communism=Anti-Communism=Evangelical Atheism), in that they appear to provide a higher purpose which men seem to crave. With the added bonus of providing an Enemy.

        The healthists are almost like knights on a quest and, unfortunately, we are the fire-breathing dragons.

        Top poster: You were thinking of Enstrom & Kabat.

  9. garyk30 says:

    It is insane when politicians believe this sort of crap!

    ” I have a right to not have to breathe in your cigarette exhalations or smell like your smoke stank.”

    I have been looking for years and can find no mention of any such ‘right’.

    This is definitely not listed in the American Constitution or Bill of Rights.

    Such a ‘right’ only exists in the fevered,self-centered, imagination of the anti-smoker zealots.

    Antis claim that no one has a ‘right’ to smoke; but, I do have the ‘right’ to make the choice about doing so.

    That is called the RIGHT to ‘liberty’ and ‘pursuit of happiness’.

  10. garyk30 says:

    “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.”

    The crazy part is that these laws will be in the name of ‘equality’ or ‘equal rights’.

    All they do is ensure that some people are ‘more equal’ than are others and that some people have fewer liberties.

    I do not think that politicians are concerned about, or know about, actual equality.

  11. You are so right about Richard Dawkings, Frank. It seems to me it takes just about the same ammount of faith to be religious than it takes to be atheistic. It pains me to admit it but false science (or cargo-cult science, as Richard P. Feynman brilliantly defined it), is now a new religion. Sounds legit, all the mumbo-jumbo in place. But no verifiable, falsifiable, results.

  12. mikef317 says:

    Trying out my spiffy new User ID.

    Just today I ran across a blog that covers retracted scientific papers and other problems with the literature. People who question the accuracy of science might find it interesting.

    • I searched for second hand smoke studies none listed YET!

      • alanxxx says:

        Late arriving as Xmas happened – but yes, yes and yes again in agreement with the ideas expressed here.

        Elsewhere on this blog’s comments I’ve pointed out the seemingly eternal return of the end of the world scenario, whether it’s by Nuclear weapons, the hand of God, or now by man made global warming.

        A couple of channel 4 documentaries interested me – one essayed the idea that an idea of health had become the new religion, and another one described the possibility that Lady Di was being used by some as a new form of saint to be worshipped.

        Yet another idea that came forward was the human need for confession that is now not formally met by the majority of church religion in England. So you get confessional tv, confessional internet and confession in the doctor’s surgery.

  13. XX the possibility that Lady Di was being used by some as a new form of saint to be worshipped.XX
    Within hours of the cow being wipped out, people were calling for it to be “cannonised”. I seem to remember it was even a debate point on what was then “Talk radio”.

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