I often wonder how people get to form their opinions. Particularly these days, when a lot of people seem to have opinions completely opposite to mine.
It would be nice to think that people reached their opinions about one matter or another after careful consideration. But I don’t think that many of my own opinions are carefully considered. In fact, I think hardly any of them are. I simply don’t have enough time to think about everything.
Instead, I think that my opinion about anything (if I have any opinion at all) is usually pretty much what everyone else thinks. Or at least everyone else who has expressed their opinion to me. My opinion is pretty much the average of everyone else’s opinion.
And having opinions like that makes for an easy life. Because when you meet up with friends, and talk about stuff, you find that you mostly agree with them about almost everything, and they agree with you. Which is a nice and warm and cosy experience. And friends are, almost by definition, people you tend to agree with. It’s hard work having differing opinions. Because you find yourself disagreeing rather than agreeing, and disagreeing is, well,… disagreeable.
But because people’s minds are usually slowly changing about things, the average opinion in any social group is always slowly changing. For example, over 20+ years in my old social group, opinion gradually swung from being smoking-tolerant to smoking-intolerant. So that most of the people I used to know are now antismokers, even if none of them are virulent antismokers. And I think that this is something that happened largely because they gradually came to agree, simply by talking to each other.
But friends and family aren’t the only sources of opinion. Anyone who reads a newspaper, or listens to a radio, or watches TV, is also being bombarded with opinions. And these get averaged in too. So you’ll often find that someone who reads a different newspaper than you do will also have slightly different opinions to you.
And of course it’s from radio and TV and newspapers that antismoking messages have been coming for the past 50 years or more, first in a slow drip, now in a flood. And this actually works to gradually shift opinions. Sixty years ago, nobody worried about smoking. And now pretty much everybody thinks it’s bad for you, and that it causes cancer and more or less every malady too. And it’s all come from the mass media. So I reckon that some of my former friends were people who watched TV a lot, or listened to the radio a lot. And gradually became more and more worried about smoking, and told their friends about it. And so their opinions gradually changed.
And if I didn’t go down the same path, it’s probably because I’ve never been a big TV watcher or radio listener. If I had been, I’d probably now be as antismoking as any of them. Equally, if they got to become antismoking, it was also because I personally never countered their antismoking opinions with contrary strongly pro-smoking ones. If I had, they might not have become antismokers. Instead, when they expressed concern about smoking, I would sympathise. But I never thought about smoking much back then.
I think that the low key antismoking media campaign of the past 50 years was so successful in changing people’s minds, that it was decided to use the same template to shift public opinion about other things. For example the global warming scare uses the same media template: trace amounts of gas in the atmosphere posing a terrible threat.
But while the antismoking campaign was conducted over 50 years, they tried to rush through the global warming scare in just 10 or 20 years. And they did it not just with a drip-drip of media scare stories, but with a torrent of them. And I stopped reading the Independent (my newspaper of choice at the time) because I realised that they were hosing me down every day with global warming scare stories. They tried to shift public opinion too quickly. And it didn’t work. So now we have global warming alarmists and sceptics in roughly equal numbers.
I sometimes think that the sole purpose of the mass media is to shape public opinion in one direction or other. Antismoking is one direction. Climate change is another. Christopher Booker in the Telegraph today:
We can see countless other examples these days of how the media, politicians and lobby groups wish to impose their own false “narratives” on public understanding of the issues of the time, remorselessly suppressing any evidence that contradicts the version they want us to believe. But a prime function of journalism should be to examine all the evidence and to expose these “narratives” for the fraudulent concoctions of artifice they are.
When I first began seriously investigating the great alarm over global warming a few years back, what first aroused my suspicion that something very odd was going on was the way in which those pushing the scare were not only shameless in their readiness to fiddle the scientific data, as in the notorious “hockey stick” graph, but quite ruthless in trying to discredit any critics, however expert, who dared challenge their theory. The last thing the pushers of a one-sided “narrative” can ever allow, or are equipped to engage in, is honest dialogue, based on an attempt to explore the truth of an issue in three dimensions.
The above opinion comes from a new source: the internet. And the internet is a source of a wide plurality of opinions about everything. And I think that the effect of encountering diverse opinions on the internet is to make everyone rather less certain of their own opinions. So if the mass media tend to drive opinion in one direction towards a consensus, the internet tends to diversify opinion away from any consensus. It’s much harder to shape public opinion in an internet era.
But it still consists of opinions that people express, and that people read, and which act to change minds very slightly. And these days, as an accidental blogger, I express opinions every day. And for the most part, banging on about the smoking ban, I’m expressing the same opinions as my readers. And as such, I’m helping to confirm and re-inforce their opinions. But I don’t always do that. I throw in all sorts of other ideas too. But if my opinions subtly change or re-inforce my readers’ opinions, my readers’ opinions – expressed in comments – subtly re-inforce or change mine. So I get about us much opinion coming back at me as I put out.
I sometimes wonder what effect this blog has. Mostly it seems like zero, in terms of shifting public opinion. But since I posted it over a year ago, my Black Lung Lie has gotten about 70,000 hits. And that’s 70,000 people who’ve encountered a different opinion. And maybe some of them mentioned it to friends of theirs. And Tobacco Control have got a web page devoted to me. So I must be hurting them a bit. But if I am, it’s probably not that I get anyone to agree with me, but that I get people to doubt a few of their own certainties.
And maybe that’s all that matters.