Sir David Attenborough, the veteran broadcaster and climate change alarmist, has attacked the involvement of voters in politics beyond elections, suggesting the only way to stop Donald Trump is to “shoot him” and that complex political questions like Brexit should be blocked by “wiser” politicians.
Condemning Mr. Trump’s climate-scepticism, Sir David asked: “Do we [foreigners] have any control or influence over the American election? Of course we don’t. We could shoot him… it’s not a bad idea.”
Whilst the Radio Times journalist conducting the interview suggested it was a joke met with “giggles”, such violent rhetoric from this liberal establishment figure and cultural icon may bbe seen as hypocritical…
“What we mean by parliamentary democracy is surely that we find someone we respect who we think is probably wiser than we are, who is prepared to take the responsibility of pondering difficult things and then trust him – or her – to vote on our behalf,” Sir David continued.
He said he was concerned by Michael Gove’s EU referendum claims that the British people have had enough of experts. “That’s why politicians getting up and saying, ‘We’ve had enough of experts’ is so catastrophic,” he added.
Linking the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump, Sir David was not “scared to call it xenophobia” driven by a “primordial fear”, it was reported.
He then described, with sympathy and understanding, the popular fear of mass migration and rapid cultural changed driven by globalisation, before dismissing such worries as just “what it is”.
“It’s very easy, as we all know, to be very tolerant of minorities until they become majorities and you find yourself a minority. It’s easy to say… ‘Oh yes, these lovely people – I love the way they wear such interesting costumes [he giggles].
“That’s fine until some day you find that they’re actually telling you what to do and that they’ve actually taken over the town council and what you thought was your home isn’t.”
David Attenborough is a British (perhaps even a global) cultural icon. He produced numerous TV documentaries about the natural world of plants and animals. He became controller of BBC2, and commissioned numerous successful programmes, including Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
That said, I find myself in almost complete disagreement with more or less everything he says in this interview (the source of which I’ve yet to find). For example:
“What we mean by parliamentary democracy is surely that we find someone we respect who we think is probably wiser than we are, who is prepared to take the responsibility of pondering difficult things and then trust him – or her – to vote on our behalf.”
He sees parliamentary democracy as essentially one of finding and trusting authority figures to take decisions on our behalf. I see parliamentary democracy as essentially about electing people who will represent me and my point of view. When I vote for a candidate in an election, I don’t usually think that I’m electing someone wiser than I am (although they may well be).
It reminds me of the central issue I faced as a 17-year-old Roman Catholic boy: Do I unquestioningly accept the authoritative teachings of the Church in every respect, or do I make up my own mind for myself? I eventually decided, after much heart-searching, to make up my own mind. And in doing so, in retrospect I think I became some sort of Protestant. Because pretty much all the Protestant heretics – Luther, Calvin, etc. – were people who did not accept the authority of the Pope in Rome, and who thought for themselves. And was not Galileo some sort of free-thinker he thought for himself, and came into collision with church authorities? Isn’t anyone who thinks for himself about anything bound to come into collision with authorities of one sort or other?
Seen in that perspective, David Attenborough looks to me like the sort of good Catholic boy who believes everything the Church tells him, and probably believes every single other authority – e.g. scientific, medical, etc – he encounters as well. David Attenborough is someone who is always looking for wise authorities to place his trust in. He even does it when he votes for his local parliamentary constituency MP. And he also does it in respect of anthropogenic global warming, when he believes what climate scientists tell him. He trusts experts. He’ll trust every single expert he ever encounters.
Has David Attenborough ever had an original idea in his life? I doubt it, because I do not think that anyone who believes everything experts tell him is capable of it – because to have any new idea about anything always entails rejecting some existing authoritative dogma. I keep a quote of the physicist Richard Feynman in the right margin of this blog: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Feynman thought that all the experts were ignorant. He didn’t believe them. And that freed him to think for himself, and to greatly contribute to science (e.g. Feynman diagrams).
And indeed, I don’t know of any idea that Attenborough ever had. His brilliant TV documentaries simply recorded the natural world. I don’t remember them ever presenting any startling new ideas about the natural world. I don’t know of any books with titles like The Thoughts of David Attenborough. But perhaps there are.
In respect of Brexit, another iconic British figure – Richard Dawkins – shares the same attitude to politics as Attenborough: leave it to the experts.
I distrust experts. And I’ve had lots of ideas. Idle Theory is perhaps the biggest idea I ever had – extending as it did from physics to economics, ethics and politics -, and on which I worked for the longest. But there have been other ideas, such as my Orbital Siphon – a 175,000 km piece of string extending out from the Earth’s equator – which got noticed by a university professor and published in a space science journal. More recently, after NASA authoritatively declared that the Chelyabinsk meteor was completely unrelated to asteroid 2012 DA14, I spent months showing how it could have been trailing 25 million behind DA14, and arrived over Chelyabinsk at the exact right time, and the from the right direction (if not quite the exact right speed). And another idea that has enchanted me in recent years, and which I’ve quite often written about in my blog (here and here and here) which was that one explanation of cell growth and division was that cells maintained a constant ratio between their volume and their surface area as they grew, and this resulted in them automatically dividing in two (an idea instantly rejected by Rupert Sheldrake, I am proud to say, when I drew his attention to it). In each case I ignored the experts, and thought for myself about things.
There’s nothing I like better than an enchanting new idea, usually of some geometrical nature. Now it may well be that history will record (if it records anything at all) that all my ideas were mistaken, wrong, and perhaps even nonsensical. I can even imagine that I might have my own special place the Scientific Hall of Infamy, as a man who was quite spectacularly wrong about everything. I won’t mind. I just love ideas.
I think that one of the troubles of our time is that there are too many Attenboroughs and Dawkinses around. There are too many people who place their trust in experts of one sort or other. And the result of this is that charlatans claiming to be experts now abound everywhere. We need a robust scepticism about everything. It’s nothing new, of course: the Reformation of the 16th century was essentially about exactly the same thing, and in some sense I personally had to undergo my own reformation.
In this respect, if Donald Trump doesn’t believe the climate scientists, and doesn’t believe in global warming, he’s simply demonstrating that he is a man of independent mind. He doesn’t like Political Correctness either. Good for him. And perhaps that’s what many people find so deeply frightening about him: he doesn’t think the same way as everybody else. And it’s in this which is rooted their “primordial fear”. But I find nothing in the least frightening in Donald Trump. On the contrary, I find him an admirable man. He is, if nothing else, a man of great courage. And I sincerely hope he doesn’t get shot.