Prisons of the Mind

MikeF in NYC put his finger on why the Heartland Institute climate sceptics steer clear of tobacco:

Except for a few intrepid bloggers, almost no one challenges the conventional wisdom about tobacco. To do so is to automatically be classified as a nut.

Or a Flat-Earther. Or a Denier of what Everybody Knows.

It set me thinking about how conditioned we all are into believing one thing or another.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic. At school I received 7 years of Roman Catholic conditioning under the tutelage of Benedictine monks. You didn’t dare question anything about any religious matter. But by the time I left school I was starting to question a set of dogmatic religious teachings which had simply never made any sense to me (because I’d never felt able to ask any questions). It took me about 7 more years to gradually extract myself from under the spell of the Catholic church. In that time I became a sort of Protestant. The Protestants, after all, were the first to start questioning the dogmatic teachings of the church.

That experience left me with a strong inclination to question all and any dogmatic ideas, and to put together my own picture of the world. The Roman Catholic church is not the only dogmatic outfit in the world. Most Protestants seem to be equally dogmatic, and equally conditioned. And so is more or less everyone else. We’ve all been conditioned in multiple ways. And we’re all being conditioned all the time.

And when I got caught up in it,  I soon realised that the pot-smoking 60’s ‘counterculture’ was almost as dogmatic as the Catholic church. And so I started to fight my way out of that as well. It seems that when people dispense with one set of dogmatic beliefs, they pretty soon replace them with another set of equally dogmatic beliefs, like trains that go down one set of tracks before being shifted by a set of points onto another set of tracks.

Dogmatic thinking can be found everywhere. At university, my Ph. D. project was to build a computer-controlled electronic analogue heat flow model. In those sorts of analogue models, temperatures are replaced by voltages, heat flows by currents, thermal resistance by electrical resistances, and so on. One of the electronic components of the model was a thing called a current pump, which squirted electric current into the array of resistors and capacitors that represented a building of some sort. But the existing current pumps didn’t work very well: they didn’t pump enough current. It was a big problem that I soon identified. But my tutor, a physicist, wearily explained that they’d all been trying for years to make them work better, without success. My predecessor had taken the current pump apart, and replaced all the resistors and capacitors with different values, and got nowhere. It just couldn’t be done.

To me that seemed like a piece of dogmatic thinking. I’d noticed that there were quite a few equations governing the op-amps in the current pump circuit. So I suggested that we write down as many equations as we could, including Ohm’s law. It was a different, analytic approach that no-one had taken before. He assented, and I still remember the sunny afternoon when we sat down in his office and started writing down equations. We ended up with about 10 of them.

And then I went home, and started sifting through the equations, counting the number of unknown variables and so on. There were 10 equations, and 11 unknowns. After about a week of merging and blending and adding and subtracting the equations, I ended up with a single new equation which showed how the current output should vary in response to all the other variables. And it said that it should be possible to get them to pump 3 times as much current as they had been. So I wrote up all the mathematics neatly on two sheets of A4 paper, and took it to my tutor.

A week or two later, he handed back the two sheets of paper with a single cryptic remark. “Very interesting.”

I was astonished. I thought that he’d be excited, and tell me to go and build one to see if it worked. He didn’t. So, in secret, I got hold of one of the current pumps and rebuilt it to the new specification. And it worked exactly as my equation predicted, 3 times better than the old model.

So, a couple of months after presenting my mathematical treatise, I now set up an empirical demonstration, with a real current pump charging a capacitor with a steady current. And then I called in my tutor to see it. He came in the company of the senior lab technician. And they both sat watching while the capacitor voltage climbed in a straight line on a storage oscilloscope, just like it was supposed to.

They said nothing. They both just got up and walked out. And nothing more was said, that day or the next.

I didn’t know what to do after that. But I realised that I’d committed a sort of crime. I’d questioned their dogmatic thinking, and shown them they were wrong. And they couldn’t forgive me. I’d (unintentionally) shown them all up. I’d made them look stupid.

And that is why I’m Frank, and not Dr Frank (not that I ever cared whether I got a doctorate). I secretly built lots of the new model current pumps. And eventually, after about 2 years, my tutor tacitly admitted that they really did work. But by that time I’d gotten discouraged, and never bothered to even start writing a doctoral thesis.

Antismoking doctrines are another example of dogmatic thinking. It’s manifestly obvious that they’re dogmatic, because they can’t be questioned. They can no more be questioned than the triune nature of God, or the impossibility of building improved current pumps. And if you do have the nerve to question them, you get dismissed as a nut.

The first antismoker I ever encountered, shortly after leaving school, was Dr W.  He was loudly opposed to smoking.  His rage against the placid pastime was itself evidence of the irrational and dogmatic foundations of his opposition. And after my time in the Catholic Church, I’d got pretty good at identifying dogmatic ideas. They were the ones that you weren’t allowed to question. They’re the ones which people get enraged about when anyone questions them.

Back then I thought that Dr W was just a lone, harmless crank. But now, 50 years later, his irrational dogma has grown into a monster that’s consuming the whole world, as smoking bans are being used to expel smokers from society, and to bankrupt entire industries. It’s a crime. It’s a terrible crime. Yet hardly anybody seems able to question the dogma.

We’re all stuck in prisons of the mind. And when we break out of one prison, all too often we find we’ve only burrowed through the walls of the Château d’If into another prison.



About Frank Davis

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18 Responses to Prisons of the Mind

  1. Marvin says:

    Hmmm, I’m not sure what you mean by “current pump”. If you mean charging a capacitor with a constant current so that the voltage across it rises linearly then it’s simple. All you need is a PNP transistor with a fixed base voltage and a resistor in the emitter to control the size of the current, the capacitor is connected from the collector to ground (0V). Switch on and the voltage across the cap will rise linearly. All CRT oscilloscopes use this method for their timebase deflection, it’s called a current source or a Miller run-up circuit.

    Maybe that’s why you didn’t get a PhD ;)

    • Frank Davis says:

      I believe there are indeed a variety of constant current devices. But the one we were using had two op-amps, and the circuit had been lifted out of a book called Operational Amplifiers (which seemed to be the definitive text back in 1975). I’ve got a photocopy of my two-page treatise somewhere, which shows the circuit. I’ll see if I can dig it out.

      • harleyrider1978 says:

        regernerative feedback loop on an op amp………….vary the resistance and you can vary the output.

  2. Lepercolonist says:

    This article brought to mind Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. His talk at TED was banned because he confronted scientific dogma. Here is a link of his banned presentation :

    I enjoy all of Dr. Sheldrake’s books. His latest, ‘The Science Delusion’ is excellent.

  3. waltc says:

    Thanks for that, LC, and it’s right on topic. I’ve been fascinated by morphic resonance since I first. heard him speak about 20 (?) yrs ago. It seems both incontrovertible and inexplicable by the rules of Acceptd Science. Otoh, I recall it was said (true or not) that he fudged his findings on a study about dogs and went off into a couple of wild blue yonders. In any case, he’s the kind of out of the box thinker the world, and especially science needs more of.

    The dogmas die hard. For one example, cholesterol as the root of all evils had a good 50 yr run and even in the light of new contradictory evidence, its adherents have too much invested in it to let it go. They’ll claim the new findings are erroneous, or the researchers are in the pocket of Big Egg. Just as they attacked the heresy of Enstrom & Kabat; and the Lifestyle peddlars came out with long knives at the notion that cancer is a random event without a rational cause. And Frank is again right: new dogmas pop up to replace the old ones among the congenitally dogmatic. So now it’s sugar that’s the root of all evil.

    As for your university experience, Frank, you came up against the rule about arguing with the boss which, as I once said, is a lose-lose situation. If you argue and you’re wrong, you will never have a future; if you argue and you’re right, you will never be forgiven.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I agree that Sheldrake is the sort of out-of-the-box thinker the world needs more of. I saw a very interesting YouTube video of him talking about how scientific constants (e.g. the Big G gravitational constant) weren’t very constant. It may have been LC’s above.

      That said, I’ve never been able to see why the ability of one blue tit to peck through milk bottle tops is rapidly transmitted to other blue tits needs ‘morphic resonance’ to explain it. Surely they just see each other doing it?

      • waltc says:

        As I recall the original example he gave was of monkeys washing yams at the shoreline on islands. Out of sight of the monkeys on other islands who began doing the same thing. Also –could be wrong about this–but the bird-see-bird-do idea didn’t, in his version, seem to apply since the local birds stayed local and those several counties away didn’t get a bird’s eye view of them. In any case, it’s a pretty concept to at least contemplate.

        • Frank Davis says:

          Then perhaps when a few smokers start fighting back against Tobacco Control, it will be another example of morphic resonance when millions join them.

  4. mikef317 says:

    From the Heartland global warming conference. Interesting speech by William Briggs. It’s about trying to convince “true believers” that their beliefs are wrong. (Good luck with that.)

    • margo says:

      I found that interesting, mikef317. It strikes me that Man has always regarded himself as outside Nature – nature has to be either ‘conquered and controlled’ or ‘protected – and this might be relevant, somehow.
      On another theme, everyone, I’m trying to discover why ‘smoking science’ and ‘climate science’ have got so lumped together, particularly by ‘global alarmists’ but also by ‘deniers’. (I’ve recently read somewhere online that it was ‘Big Tobacco’ that first made this connection but I don’t know if it’s true). There seems to be an assumption that if you deny/believe the one, you automatically deny/believe the other. I’m constantly finding this and am very intrigued by it.
      But in my mind they are completely different: one of them looks like proper science to me, involving measurements and hypotheses and so on (a lot of it still waiting for full answers), the other doesn’t, and that’s the difference. (I’m not a scientist, but I think I can see the difference between science and non-science). Why are they lumped together?

      • Frank Davis says:

        I’m trying to discover why ‘smoking science’ and ‘climate science’ have got so lumped together, particularly by ‘global alarmists’ but also by ‘deniers’.

        Perhaps that’s because people like me have been lumping them together, since they’re both about trace amounts of gases in the atmosphere that are terrifying people.

        I agree that climate scientists do actually measure things with thermometers and other scientific measuring devices, and the antismoking scientists don’t, and instead rely on people’s memories of how many cigarettes they may have smoked, and where the ‘cigarette’ is a unit regarded as comparable to a metre or a kilogram, when of course it isn’t. In that sense, climate scientists are doing real science, and antismoking ‘scientists’ are not. The scandal of climate science (or one of them) is that having measured air temperatures all over the world, they then proceed to revise the raw data numbers up and down (usually up). So the scientific method goes out the window.

      • Rose says:

        Margo, it seems to have been someone from Public Health, Maria Nilsson that first lumped the two together in an article in the Lancet and then picked up by someone in antitobacco.

        Climate policy: lessons from tobacco control

        “Controlling tobacco use is the highest immediate priority for global health, while climate change is the biggest threat to health in the medium and long term”
        http: //

        Climate policy: lessons from tobacco control

        Lessons Learned From Tobacco Control Should be Applied to Climate Policy
        Anne Landman December 15, 2009

        “The approach the world has taken to tobacco control holds many lessons for the COP-15 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. A newly-published article in The Lancet (available with free registration) summarizes the many similarities between tobacco control and climate policy, and how the lessons learned from tobacco control can be applied to the way countries approach climate policy.

        Deja Vu All Over Again

        For both issues, the scientific evidence mounted gradually over the years. Both tobacco and climate change negatively impact public health and disproportionately affect poorer countries and lower socioeconomic groups. Both have long lead times between cause and effect, and the solutions for both require significant political will, comprehensive international policies, and long-term monitoring.

        Climate change is similar to the issue of secondhand smoke in the sense that the damage both cause constitute “externalities.” That’s the word economists use to describe the side effects of a commercial enterprise that negatively impact other parties, where the cost is not reflected in the price of the product.

        Markets have no mechanism for dealing with externalities, leaving it up to governments to step in to limit the damage. Industries typically pocket the cash their products and activities generate, while leaving the cost of cleaning up their externalities to a larger group, many of whom don’t benefit from the product in any way.

        On the public relations side, both issues have entrenched, highly resourceful vested interests working to maintain the status quo. Industries associated with both groups have worked to manufacture doubt about scientific consensus, hired consultants to confuse the public and delay effective policies, and both groups have used the “junk science” label to tarnish the mounting evidence of harm deriving from their activities.”

        Delay Can Be Deadly

        “The 50-year lag time between the first scientific evidence pointing to the hazards of smoking and the first globally-coordinated tobacco control policy to emerge in 2005 (the World Health Organization’s Global Tobacco Control Treaty contributed to the deaths of at least 100 million people globally. The delay in implementing real solutions to the tobacco epidemic is in itself a sad, and major, lesson in the high cost of delay.

        Many mistakes were made in dealing with tobacco. As a society, we were naive about the power of entrenched interests to manufacture doubt and generate controversy about overwhelming scientific conclusions of harm. For decades, legislators and regulators put the interests of harmful, private industry over those of public health and welfare. We as a society also had no clue about the tobacco industry’s vast and varied public relations strategies to preserve the status quo, and “countermeasures development programs” to defeat public health authorities’ efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths. Now we know about all this, and with the benefit of hindsight, mankind should not be fooled twice.

        The power of entrenched industries in fighting necessary common sense regulation cannot be underestimated. Governments worldwide need to meet the challenges posed by harmful industries with a united and determined front. It is our sincere hope that the governments represented at COP-15 will learn from past experience and seize their chance to advance comprehensive policies limiting damage from climate change.”

        Polluters feel the heat in rising legal tide

        “In a PR posting this week, the US anti-tobacco campaigner Anne Landman wrote: ”We now know in retrospect, thanks to industry documents, that the tobacco industry is really two separate industries: one that we see, that makes and sells cigarettes, and the other we don’t see, that has spent generations and an untold fortune trying to convince the world, against our collective better judgment, that smoking is a normal human behaviour and should stay that way.”

        But as at base, they are both about secondhand smoke and big industry and trying to get customers to quit, so I do recognise the similarities.

        • margo says:

          That’s the kind of thing, Rose. And if you Google something like Evidence for Man-made Climate Change you’ll find, over and over, a writer mentioning denial of tobacco harm as if that were as daft as believing the earth is flat.

  5. John Watson says:

    I take the view that nature is a force, it’s function is to maintain a balance that gives the maximum chance for each species to survive and that each species is balanced against the others for the same reason. Whenever an event occurs that disrupts that balance then nature steps in to redress the imbalance, .
    I think it is accepted by most that plants serve as natural air filters or gas exchangers and help to maintain the balance of the atmosphere, they also have properties that can be both beneficial or detrimental to other species dependant on dosage. When this balance is interfered with, for example the chlorination or fluoridisation of water or the addition of chemicals via food or via insecticides then that balance is changed often to the detriment of creatures higher in the food chain. There is a school of thought that chemical additives in tobacco are responsible for many of the perceived tobacco diseases (added both by the insistence of governments and in some cases voluntarily by tobacco companies) and that natural tobacco is actually better health wise (subject to dosage) than modified tobacco products.
    I suppose then it could be said I am a protectionist, to the degree that I think that nature should be left to do its job maintaining the balance for all species and not altered solely for the benefit of mankind.

  6. Rose says:

    Good news, the Tornado is back.

    Smoking hot! Iconic steam locomotive back in business thanks to £400,000 upgrade after eight-months out of action

    “Tornado was the first steam locomotive to built in Britain in over half a century as it returned to full steam and back on the tracks this weekend following an extensive eight-month service”

    “The second engine, number 2007, is being built by the team that built Tornado and will be Britain’s most powerful steam locomotive when it is completed in 2021.”

  7. smokingscot says:


    Philae’s out of hibernation!!!

    Seems the wee tyke’s still got more than 8000 data packets in its mass memory.

    • nisakiman says:

      Ah yes, I read of that with great delight! Now THAT is what I call science! Real, demonstrable skill in number crunching (I’m still in awe at how they managed to pinpoint the landing with such accuracy, given all the variables and time they were dealing with) which should deliver interesting and potentially useful results. And even if it yields nothing useful, it is such a marvelous example of technological and computational skill. Astounding and exemplary.

      Unlike the dead hand of junk science which controls the debate (?) on climate and tobacco, which doesn’t actually deserve the descriptor ‘science’, but would more fittingly be described as ersatz science, like astrology and homeopathy.

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