I’m currently hooked on an interesting fiction. It’s the idea that when the Earth gets covered in ice – as it seems that it periodically has been -, the ice acts as a layer of insulation on the rock beneath it, and causes it to warm up. And it’s this slow warming which then acts, a few thousand years later, to melt the overlying ice, and end the ice age. And once the ice has all melted, and the rock has lost its layer of insulation, it slowly cools down again.
I’ve tentatively dubbed it the Dress Theory of Ice Ages (the Earth gets dressed in ice, and then she gets undressed). And it seems to be an unknown idea in the disciplines of geology or climate science: I have yet to discover it in any of the literature of climate change. I wonder if it’s an idea that is periodically dreamt up by one fool or other, before being promptly refuted, and I’m just the latest fool to have become captivated by it.
What makes such ideas interesting? I guess it’s that these sorts of ideas offer explanations for how things happen. And Dress Theory generates ice ages with clockwork regularity. In this respect it’s almost too good an idea, because ice ages don’t actually happen with quite such clockwork regularity,
I think another feature of such ideas is that they are often very simple ideas. And Dress Theory is a very, very simple idea. It’s an idea that anyone can understand. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand it, because everybody has the experience every day of getting dressed and undressed.
Dress Theory is also a mathematical idea. And mathematical ideas are very, very simple ideas. All mathematics is really just a process of addition or summation. 1 + 1 = 2 is a sum. And subtraction is unsumming: 2 – 1 = 1. And multiplication is serial summing: 2 x 3 = (1 +1) + (1+1) + (1+1) or (1+1+1) + (1+1+1) = 6. And division is serial unsumming. (I once shared a flat with Sue Watkins, who taught me this) And 2³ is 2 x 2 x 2. And so on. All the daunting mystery of mathematics really only lies in the words mathematicians use to describe what they’re doing: Addition! Subtraction! Multiplication! Division! These polysyllabic words could sink ships. The word “mathematics” is itself a terrifying word. As also is trigonometry, algebra, geometry, probability, statistics. and all the rest of them. It seems to be a requirement in mathematics for all new mathematical ideas to be given names of fearsome complexity: first prize should go to whoever thought up lowest common denominator. Imagine being hit in the ribs by one of those.
And all ideas are fictions. They’re fantasies. They things people dream up. The whole of mathematics is an elaborate logical fantasy. But it’s a very useful and instructive fantasy. If you’re going to feed 3 people 4 potatoes each, it helps to be able to figure out how many potatoes you need to buy if you’re going to feed them all. For even if the mathematics used to find the number is a fictional device, the people are real people, and the potatoes are real potatoes (unless you are planning to feed 3 imaginary people 4 imaginary potatoes each).
And we are all of us possessed by fictions of one sort or other. And these fictions are rival explanations for real events. There are lots of rival explanations for why things happen. Wars are fought between rival ideas. What’s Communism? An idea. What’s Christianity? An idea. What’s Geology? An idea. What’s Anthropogenic Global Warming? An idea. And these warring ideas form a sort of ecosystem, in which ideas are born and live and die. An idea will gain a certain currency for a while. It will attract supporters, some of them fanatical devotees. And then, as doubts about it grow, it will lose supporters. Eventually it will vanish and die, perhaps to be rediscovered centuries later by some archaeologist rummaging in a tomb.
Good ideas are ones that live a long time. Good ideas are ones that survive. And they will survive until a better idea comes along. And the best ideas are the ones that explain the most, and explain it very simply. Bad ideas are ones that explain nothing, or explain very little, or explain things in very complicated ways.
I’m always trying to think up ways to defeat Tobacco Control. I think Tobacco Control must be destroyed. In fact I think that Tobacco Control will be destroyed. And my thought this morning was that the idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer is a complete fiction, a total fabrication and falsehood. But it’s a fiction which has somehow managed to usurp reality, so that everybody (or almost everybody) thinks it’s true. It’s become the one thing that almost everybody is absolutely convinced is true. How come everyone has come to believe such utter nonsense?
The answer, perhaps, is that it’s a very, very simple idea: You light a cigarette, and you inhale the smoke into your lungs, and the smoke gives you lung cancer. How beautifully and wonderfully simple! Isn’t it blindingly obvious? Is it at all surprising that almost everybody believes that this is the explanation for lung cancer? And doesn’t it lend further force to the idea if a whole army of doctors believe it too? And further force when the idea is printed in big black capital letters on every pack of cigarettes?
The same idea underpins global warming alarmism: You light a cigarette, and exhale its smoke into the atmosphere, and the smoke traps heat and causes runaway atmospheric warming. How beautifully and wonderfully simple! Isn’t it blindingly obvious?
What’s missing? It’s the complicated detail that’s missing. OK, so I inhale smoke into my lungs. So far so good. Now tell me how the smoke gives me lung cancer. And why only tobacco smoke gives me lung cancer, but not pot smoke or wood smoke or any other kind of smoke.
And there’s no answer to that. Because they don’t know how the smoke causes lung cancer. It’s just a plausible sort of idea that it does. But it requires a short leap of faith to jump past the missing piece of the explanation. And most people can make that leap. Who’s going to argue with all those doctors?
The reality is that what looks like it’s a beautifully simple explanation only looks simple if you leave out the details of exactly how the process of getting lung cancer works. And the details are left out because nobody knows how lung cancer starts. It doesn’t help to say that tobacco smoke is full of carcinogens. For that’s like saying that smoking causes cancer because smoke causes cancer – “cancer-causing” is what carcinogenic means. It begs the question of how the smoke causes cancer. And how it is that it causes cancer in some people, but not others.
The idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer is a very, very simple and very, very attractive idea. Simple ideas are attractive ideas: people understand them immediately. But that’s really all this idea has ever been: a very simple, very attractive idea. And it’s never got any further than that. Some 100 years after this simple idea took off, they still don’t know how the smoke causes lung cancer. How come they still don’t know? Why must everyone make a leap of faith to get past the the missing details? Why must everyone be bullied and bludgeoned into agreeing that smoking causes lung cancer? Why must sceptics be demonised?
It’s the same with global warming alarmism. That’s an equally simple and attractive idea. But when you start asking exactly how CO2 warms the atmosphere, the explanation gets hazier and hazier. Because they don’t really know. But they believe that it does. It’s a faith, a credo. And it’s a fiction. A compelling fiction. And they believe that everyone must be compelled to believe it too.
Speaking of compelling fictions, I came across the 6-part mini-series, Quatermass and the Pit on YouTube last night. I watched it breathlessly in 1958, at the age of 10, and never forgot it. It’s going to be my weekend treat to watch it all over again, episode by episode.