I seem to have an aversion to cults. I’ve never signed up to any of them. And I’ve come across quite a few. I think Transcendental Meditation (the thing the Beatles signed up for) was probably the first I noticed. But there were plenty more. Scientology. The Moonies. Subud. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Heaven’s Gate. The Reverend Jim Jones. They’ve been popping up all over the place the past 40 or 50 years, it seems.
It’s very often just their names that turn me off. I had a very good friend of mine join something called The Emissaries of the Divine Light. And, well, sorry, but I sort of knew immediately that there was no way I was going to be able to take something called that in the least bit seriously. It may as well have been the Church of the Dancing Potatoes. I thought he’d lost his mind. And I used to think he was a very logical kind of guy.
But if it’s not the name I trip over, it’s the sudden realisation that underlying the cult in question is some sort of horrible barking madness, some terrifying irrationality, or some piece of monstrous idealism.
And my encounters with these irrational cults have always had the effect on me of prompting me to try to become more rational, more commonsensical, more grounded in reality. And, in my case, that’s resulted in me spending more and more time on mathematics and physics, because they are supremely rational. Or at least not manifestly insane.
And I guess that these days I think that if whisky and cigarettes can’t cure the underlying malady of the soul that leads people into these cults, then probably nothing ever will.
But the cults aren’t always run by Indian gurus with long hair and beards. That’s a dead give-away. Some of them are run by very respectable-looking people.
I’ve been reading The Believers by Adam LeBor. It’s about Bernie Madoff. And it starts out:
The simplest way to understand how Bernard Madoff persuaded thousands of investors to pour billions of dollars into his investment scam is to think of it as a cult. The cult of Madoff followed all the necessary rules. It was founded and run by a godlike figure whose decisions could never be questioned or challenged. Its devotees believed themselves to be part of an elect group, with access to a secret credo denied the rest of the world… The secret knowledge was his arcane investment strategy, couched in pseudo-scientific terms that could never be properly understood but which members believed would provide them with eternal wealth…
The cult of Madoff was astonishingly successful. Bernard Madoff was a financial criminal genius who ran the largest and most enduring fraud in modern history. His elaborately engineered scam, investigators believe, lasted for decades. It reached from Wall Street and across America, to Europe and further East.
Madoff wore Saville Row suits, and he had a number of houses and yachts, and he was married with children, and he helped create the NASDAQ computer trading system, and he was very well respected, and he circulated in the highest social circles, including royalty. He was an ultimate insider. And nobody – or hardly anybody – could even begin to believe that he was doing anything fraudulent. It was quite literally unthinkable. And yet he was actually running a $65 billion pyramid scheme, by simply offering investors a relatively modest 10-12% annual return on their money. People fell over themselves trying to lodge their money with him. Yet none of them could figure out how he kept on producing the same return, regardless of the market conditions. Until 10 December 2008, when they all found out.
It’s people like this who are far more dangerous than any long-haired Indian guru. They’re rich and they’re extremely respectable and absolutely everybody thinks the world of them, even though they can’t quite understand their impenetrable mathematics.
And I think that the cult of antismoking is an even bigger scam, that’s been running for far longer, and has made far more money for its devotees, mostly in the form of taxes. And it gets away with it because its high priests are ultra-respectable doctors and scientists who are, if anything, far more respectable than Bernie Madoff ever could have been.
Yet all the hallmarks of a cult are there. The cult of antismoking also has its charismatic gurus, past and present. In Britain Sir Richard Doll was for many years the main man. And its doctrines are as unquestionable as any of Madoff’s decisions. And it also has its own vast pseudo-scientific literature, mostly statistical jiggery-pokery of one sort or other. Nobody really understands it, just like nobody really understood Madoff’s investment strategy. Instead they take it all on faith, just like Madoff’s investors.
Dr W, who I met back in the 1960s, was quite a big wheel in the cult. I didn’t know it was a cult back then. I just thought that the joyless Dr W was a one-off, and borderline insane in his hatred of smoking. There was something profoundly irrational about his attitude. It was some sort of a weird belief system. But Dr W wore a pinstripe suit, and attended conferences at the BMA. He didn’t look like he was a dangerous lunatic, even though I knew he was, because I’d seen it at first hand, watching him rant like an evangelical preacher against the “filthy, filthy, filthy” habit.
His madness is everywhere now. Millions of people now believe that smoking is the cause of every disease known to man, and that tobacco is more addictive than heroin, and that tobacco smoke can go through walls and along telephone wires, and that even the sight of anyone smoking can cause heart attacks.
But relatively few people can see just how utterly insane it all is. They trust the doctors and the scientists. They can no more bring themselves to question their integrity than Madoff’s customers could entertain the idea that he was a crook.
There are a lot of people these days that have been emboldened to question the cult of global warming (and that is a cult too), and to regard it as the greatest scam in human history. But the same people very often aren’t able to spot the pseudo-science of antismoking. Somehow, sceptics as they might be about global warming, they just can’t quite get themselves to entertain the idea the antismoking campaigns are also part of an equally irrational cult.
And yet these days the cult of antismoking is doing far more damage than Bernie Madoff ever did, or even the environmentalist global warming alarmists. For the cult of antismoking is not just extracting billions of dollars in taxes from the pockets of smokers everywhere in the world, but it’s also destroying thousands of businesses, and shattering communities, and turning friends against each other, and even killing people. It’s become a Godzilla monster, trampling across the entire globe.
People are going to wake up to this rampaging monster. There are growing signs that this is beginning to happen. And they’re going to start questioning the pseudo-science all the way back to its Nazi, eugenic origins. And they’re not going to care if its high priests are senior doctors with Sir in front of their names. And they’re going to wonder how they – and so many millions of other people – ever came to swallow its absurd and destructive doctrines.