From time to time I get possessed by ideas.
And throughout 2018 I’ve been possessed by a new idea. It’s an idea about ice ages. And my idea was that when, as periodically happens, the Earth gets covered in ice, the ice acts as a layer of thermal insulation on top of the ground beneath it, the ground gradually warms up, in exactly the same manner as people warm up when they put on clothes. And I thought that if this happened, then when the ground has warmed up enough over many thousand years, it would eventually melt the overlying ice. And when the ice melted and trickled away in streams, the exposed ground would start to cool back down, in exactly the same way that people cool down when they take off their clothes. And fairly rapidly the ground would cool to the point where ice could begin to settle on it once again. And then the ice would start growing, and the cycle would repeat.
It was a very simple idea.
I’ve been working all year on this idea, constructing a computer simulation model of conductive heat flow from the centre of the Earth. I’ve now also got an atmosphere on top of the Earth, and a Sun that provides seasonal heating at every latitude. My model is becoming quite sophisticated.
This idea is the one that currently possesses me. It’s one of a number of similar ideas that possess me to greater or lesser extent. Idle Theory is another such idea. It’s one that has possessed me for 45 years. And I could list several dozen such similar ideas, which I pick up and put down from time to time, like half-solved crossword puzzles.
And I’m very far from being the only person in the world who has ever got possessed by ideas. My mother used to warn me about “people who get ideas.” But by the age of five I was already possessed by all sorts of wonderful ideas. It’s just like falling in love. And other people fall in love with ideas too. It happens everywhere, all the time.
And some of these ideas are very catching. When one person gets an idea, quite often the people around him will also catch on to the idea. And suddenly there will be a little clique of True Believers in the New Idea. And sometimes these ideas will spread all over the world.
In my experience, the principal characteristic of these enchanting ideas is: Simplicity. The simpler an idea is, the more completely it takes hold. If it’s simple enough, it becomes blindingly obvious. And anyone who can’t see it must be a fool.
And one such simple idea that has swept the world in recent years is the idea that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming. It’s an idea that seems to have taken root in the placid backwaters of climate science, and almost completely captured the entire profession within a decade or two. And now it’s captured pretty well the whole world, and conferences are regularly convened about how to deal with the menace of Carbon Dioxide (and now the menace of Carbon).
And of course it’s a very simple idea. So simple that anyone can understand it. It’s blindingly obvious. Anyone who can’t see it must be a complete idiot.
It’s not the first such idea to sweep the world. And it won’t be the last. But it’s a wonderful case study of an idea that had appeared in recent years, and come to possess the whole world.
Another such idea is the idea that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer. This seems to have been an idea that first took root in the medical profession about 100 years ago, and gradually came to infect the entire profession. By about 1950, it seems that most doctors were convinced of it. And, pretty rapidly, everyone else became convinced of it too. So now we have ever-tightening smoking bans all over the world, and smokers being exiled to the outdoors.
And once again, it’s a very, very simple idea. No need for complicated, multi-factorial, viral or bacterial or genetic or radioactive origins for lung cancer. All it takes is a few puffs on a cigarette, and you’ll have lung cancer next day. What could be simpler? It’s an idea that anyone can understand. And everyone does understand. And (almost) everyone believes it. And so now the whole world is possessed by this idea. And far more deeply possessed by it than the world is possessed by the idea that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming (which a lot of people don’t believe).
There are lots of other similar ideas. Socialism is another such idea. It’s an idea that first possessed a handful of thinkers, including Karl Marx. And it was the idea that societies could be reformed to become egalitarian, with all goods held in common ownership, and production planned by the state. This is another simple idea. And that’s why it’s so captivating. And why it has possessed millions and millions of True Socialist Believers.
The Theory of Evolution is another such idea (Darwin). And so is the Theory of Relativity (Einstein). And so is the Kinetic Theory of Gases (Boltzmann). Also Newtonian mechanics (Newton). These kinds of ideas are found everywhere. Even cake recipes have their founding fathers (or, more usually, mothers), and their true believers who religiously mix the same ingredients in the same way.
All of these ideas seem to start life is small, close-knit communities of like-minded people. The climate science community. The medical profession. Obscure university departments of one sort or other. Within these communities ideas are both being generated and spreading rapidly. And then they propagate from one small community to another. And from there they extend out into the wider world.
And there are many small communities. In many senses, governments are made up of small communities of politicians and civil servants, who talk much more to each other than to anyone else, and who usually believe more or less the same things. The same applies to the mainstream media, and any number of other professions. So it should be no surprise if, shortly after the climate science profession or the medical profession becomes captivated by some new idea, governments and media also get captivated. And nobody likes to be left behind, and stuck with some old-fashioned belief or other. So everybody hastens to climb aboard the bandwagon of the latest fashionable belief.
Yet it should not be too much of a surprise if some people don’t believe these fashionable New Ideas. Amazingly, not everyone believes that Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming or that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, or any other current fashionable Big Idea.
In my own case, I tend to believe more in my own ideas than other people’s ideas. Any idea that I have had trumps any idea that someone else has had. Most of my ideas are homegrown. And they possess me precisely because they are my ideas. So it’s actually quite difficult for me to get captivated by “foreign” ideas. And this is probably why I’ve never been caught up in any of the cults that sweep the world. I reject more or less every new fad as soon as it makes its appearance.
But the result is that I’m a lone thinker. I don’t belong to any tight-knit community. And since the smoking bans and the expulsion of smokers from society, I’ve become almost a complete hermit. And the result is that none of my ideas ever propagates very far.
And that’s why you’ll probably never hear of the Theory of Ices Ages (set out briefly above) that has possessed me for the whole of 2018. And anyway, I’m quite likely to be possessed by some other equally enchanting idea in 2019, much like I was on 2017, and every year before that.