Generally Speaking

Virtue is nothing to be ashamed of

Virtue signalling?

I can’t see anything wrong with being virtuous.

Any more than I can see anything wrong with being proud of it. I gather that’s what’s we now call ‘virtue signalling’ and that’s become the adult equivalent of the playground jibe ‘goody goody’ that bullies used against kids who did their homework.

And if Polly Toynbee was right in defining another new term, ‘woke’, as ‘no more than a fundamental, unifying sense of fairness in a Guardian article last year‘, I can’t see anything wrong with that either. In fact I agree with her that decent people should embrace it proudly.

One of the ways that the social media phenomenon has changed conversation for the worse is that it has taken us back to a kind of adult playground – one in which ‘virtual’ bullies crowd around you and jeer, in which you feel alone and friendless, in which you have no way of seeing how small and pathetic the bullies actually are, and where there is no Big Teacher to ultimately intervene.

Come to think of it, one thing I feel virtuous about – one thing I am proud of actually – is the fact that my subscription to the Guardian, along with those of a million fellow subscribers, makes the link I have just inserted above toll-free to the world. But I fear saying that that will just make it easier for people with a different mindset to despise me too, and call that virtue signalling.

In fact you can do the same thing with any good behaviour at all if you really want to. Here’s another example of wokeness for the trolls to practice on:

Heating figures

A local architect has recently shared some figures about the energy consumption of his 2,000 sq. ft., state-of-the-energy-art house: 10,000 kWh (Kilowatt hours) electricity used and 2,500 kWh generated from the PV panels on his roof for the year..

Seeing this prompted me to do some long-overdue sums for our own house. I started by using a tape-measure to confirm it is a 9 metre (30 ft) square. For two floors, that makes 1,800 sq.ft. So it is roughly the same size.

I read my gas, electricity, and PV metres every Monday morning and enter them in a spreadsheet. It goes back to 2014 so I know pretty accurately that over that time we use 2,120 kWh electricity and 10,700 kWh equivalent gas per year while at the same time generating 3,583 kWh from our PV panels.

Our East facing panels – and another eight facing West

So we use 12,820 kWh energy a year instead of 10,000 for the architect’s house, and we generate 3.583 kWh instead of his 2,500. Not too bad considering our house is 50 years old.

It has cavity wall insulation (albeit in uncertain condition) and our heat source is a well-maintained condensing boiler installed within the last 10 years. OK, a heat pump would be better, perhaps that will be the next thing, but that’s not too bad. It helps that we never heat upstairs at all because we sleep better in cool, or even cold, air. The rising heat from the rooms downstairs is enough for us.

My 8 years of meter readings show that during the 7 years since our PV panels were installed we have generated 1.3 times the total electricity we have drawn from the grid. That includes almost all the ‘fuel’ used by our electric car – because except when we are on very long trips (more than 250 or so miles) we charge exclusively from a 13am plug in the garage. (Surprisingly few people realise this, by the way – unless they have a daily commute this may well be all they need.) And it has the delightful bonus that, unlike a specially installed charge-point, it only draws 2kW and that is less than the PV panels are generating during summer daylight. ‘Driving on sunshine’ – Wow!

The real motivation

So why do I feel shy about sharing these figures and ‘admitting’ to ‘virtuous’ motivation? Why have I had a draft of this post on the stocks for well over a year, unsure whether it would be wise to press ‘Publish’?

The thing I feel shy to admit is that our motivation has almost nothing to do with the only objective it is safe to admit to in the modern world – Saving Money.

How much did it cost?’ ‘When did you break even?’ These are the things everybody wants to know.

They are important of course, and we happily give the answers. But they have almost nothing to do with why we care about these things or, for that matter, why I am writing this post. Like many retired professionals in similar positions in this grotesquely unequal society we have no need to worry seriously about the cost of fuel. Instead, what motivates us is an aching certainty that in the current emergency it is our absolute duty as citizens of the world to generate as little CO2 as we possibly can. That’s the reason we have decided never to fly again. Not just because we’ve had our turn.

And let’s admit it – we want to set a good example. Not to make people feel guilty (not that there’s much hope of that for the teeming ultra-rich and their stratospheric emissions) we want to show people how much we little people care and hope that will inspire them to do their bit as well.

But none of our neighbours, good people though they certainly are, have copied our solar panels. And after campaigning for years about the climate emergency, latterly with the Alton Climate Action Network, we find people in general no more willing than they were in the past to grasp the need to take any action beyond a bit of recycling.

Let’s be awoke

That is why I would like to compare our energy figures with those of people in similar houses. And why, surely, it should be a routine part of what we discuss about our homes. I don’t know whether I and my wife are really causing less emission than our neighbours, but I think it would be important to know, because it might make a difference if we were and if enough people moved towards doing something similar.

But one thing I do know is that the easy way out is to use the ‘virtue signalling’ jibe, call us ‘wokerati’, and go back to sleep.

I’m James – I’m a Google-olic

“Okay Google. How many Google apps do I use on this phone?”

“No, Google, I didn’t mean, ‘How many apps are in the Google store?’ – although I admit 2.7 million is pretty impressive. (If true.) I meant how much of your stuff am I actually using?”

“No – wrong again Google Assistant – I don’t want to know which apps are using most battery…”

Give up – I’m going to have to work this out for myself.

The reason I want to know, by the way, is because of the warning last week by Gmail creator Paul Buchheit that ChatGPT is going to destroy Google’s business model within 2 years. It made me wonder how addicted I am, just in case it’s as serious as it sounds.

So, here we go:

I’ll start with Gmail because I use it for all my email. A dear, much missed friend introduced me to it years ago when it was still Googlemail and showed me the richness of its features – coloured labels for different categories of messages, group-mailing, filters you can set to do a host of clever things. All of which I now use and depend on. With its incredibly efficient spam filters and so on I am simply not aware of anything like it. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine losing the instantly-searchable archive of every email I have sent or received since (pause to check) blimey! 2006. Or indeed, how I would ever rebuild the list of Contacts if Google went to the wall.

I organise my entire life with Google Calendar. Using different coloured calendars for different categories of events, some of which are shared with other people. Individual events can be set to remind me in advance, some to repeat, and some have notes, addresses or whole documents (I only discovered this feature recently) attached. And whether I access from phone, tablet, laptop or desktop, I always see the latest version. Magic. And again there is a lovely, searchable ‘diary’ stretching back years.

Search, the original thing that Google got so triumphantly right, is not really so indispensable to me because there are alternatives which supposedly avoid the adds and tracking. But then I have to bear in mind that that is how Google make their money and that is why everything they provide is free.

With that in mind I press on making my list: Google Maps gives me state-of-the-art route-planning/satellite navigation, complete with live traffic information – which is derived automatically, so I understand, from the movements of the countless Google users travelling about far below.

The closely-integrated Google Earth is that incomparable compilation of images which gives me, at the merest whim, an unprecedented satellite-to-birds-eye view of our planet. Or, if at night I care to look heavenward, Sky-map is there on my phone to tell me which stars I am looking at. Back here on the ground, Google Streetview, the product of a project of almost unimaginable ambition – involving special camera vehicles driving along virtually every road and backstreet in the world – lets me follow all those millions of routes, with 360°, zoomable vision, from the proverbial comfort of my armchair.

Google Drive provides a cloud base for office documents, including those in the in-house Docs and Sheets formats. When any of these are shared with members of organisations I belong to there is another kind of magic because we can all contribute to the ‘top copy’ in the cloud and watch each other’s edits, as they happen, ‘in real time’. And we are still years away from fully exploiting the potential of this revolutionary technology.

Google Translate is yet another extraordinary app, although I only use it occasionally and for a small handful of the 100 languages in its every-expanding repertoire. But when I do it is utterly amazing, dealing in the spoken word as well as text.

Although I do most of my reading from printed books, preferably beautifully produced ones, eBooks have their place too and for them I use Google Play Books. For podcasts I use Google Podcast. Working via Bluetooth directly to my hearing-aids they are a wonderful enhancement to any solitary walk.

YouTube and YouTube Music are both now owned by the parent company, Alphabet, so, although they are not free, I owe my videos and streamed music to Google as well. And I can play any music through our living room sound system because the unit came with Google Chromecast built in.

Then of course there’s Google Photos, another app I use almost every day, with innumerable clever features, and Lens is the way I scan barcodes and sometimes recognise and derive information about places and things.

Even more convenient than contactless credit cards, I now use my phone and Google Wallet (previously Google Pay) for touchless payments of all kinds.

Fit isn’t the full Fitbit of course, but it tracks my activity pretty well, and is surprisingly incentivising, and it came bundled with my Google Pixel phone. So I’m not looking that particular gift horse in the mouth.

The default browser on all my devices is Chrome. And last but very much not least, my mobile phone, in common with most mobile phones in the world, is powered by the Android operating system.

So the answer to my original question to Google Assistant should have been, ‘at least 24’, because I keep thinking of new ones to add to the list and I doubt I’ve finished yet. Anyway, it’s several times the number I was imagining when I started this exercise, and it is both astonishingly large and, if there is really some doubt about the future viability of Google, very alarming.

Clearly I have taken these services for granted as they have become deeply integrated over recent years into the way I live, move and have my being. In short, I need them. And I know I am not alone in this. In fact the only thing that is unusual about me is that I have taken the trouble to make this list, because I’m a bit of a nerd like that, and that I have begun to grasp the size of the potential problem. (Assembling all 24 icons was even more nerdish, and I hope you, the reader, are impressed by the beauty of the resulting display.)

The chaos of Elon Musk’s recent, bizarre acquisition of Twitter has awakened me, if not the whole world, to the intrinsic fragility of software-based IT corporations funded by advertising and controlled by unstable tycoons. It hasn’t happened to Twitter, yet, but the very word stability is anathema to the swirling climate of ephemeral corporations blasted into life by the invigorating tempests of Disruption.

But some human institutions do need stability and they do need to endure. The clue is in the word institution. Imagine if some corporation owned the rights to the English language, and to use it we could either endure a lifelong drizzle of advertising or pay for a premium subscription. And then that corporation was driven to bankruptcy by some ludicrously wealthy nutcase, and we were then required to converse in, to take an extreme example, Mandarin. Not good.

So I submit that Google, along with a few other IT corporations like Microsoft, have created services which have risen to the status of institutions – and the modern world really does need them to endure. But the modern world has got to work out how this may be achieved. As yet I haven’t seen the slightest sign that anyone is addressing this challenge, or even acknowledged the extent to which we are addicted to these services, unprecedented as they are in the history of humanity.

My Dream Manifesto

On last weekend’s Sunday Morning on BBC ONE, a senior member of each of the three main British political parties was interviewed in turn by Sophie Rayworth, and they all avoided mention of what are actually the most important issues of the day. It seems that it is only ordinary people like me who remain free to refer to a whole list of unmentionable Elephants in the Room

So I have compiled the following manifesto for my ‘Dream’ political party:

> Implement Proportional Representation
> Give the Climate Emergency the pre-eminence it demands in every aspect of policy.
> Halt coal, oil and gas extraction (in that order) and stop using public money and tax loopholes to subsidise the fossil fuel industry.
> Penalise (rather than reward) irresponsible extravagances such as frequent flying, private jetting, super-yachting and joy-riding into ‘space’.
> Ban fossil fuel lobbyists from Westminster and future climate conferences.
> Re-join the Single Market (in accordance with repeated promises by Vote Leave prior to the Brexit referendum).
> Acknowledge the democratic invalidity of the Brexit referendum result and work to re-join the EU
> Reaffirm the supremacy of the Law, both national and international.
> Aspire to Honesty and Integrity in public life
> Outlaw ‘Cash for Influence’ and other contemporary corruptions of democracy.
> Investigate and if appropriate punish corrupt procurement during the Covid pandemic and £37 thousand million (twice the cost of Crossrail) wasted on Track & Trace.
> Publish the report on Russian influence in the Brexit referendum
> Reform Taxation so that it no longer favours the rich and the comfortable (from the obscenely rich down to the comfortably-retired like myself.)
> Review and where appropriate remove privileges for second home owners.
> Rebuild public planning authorities to establish key national infrastructure, starting with an efficient, unified vehicle-charging network.
> Return the NHS to public ownership and work towards abolishing the internal market.
> Restore professional autonomy to individual front-line teachers, doctors, probation officers and those in similar roles.
> Roll back Managerialism in public authorities.
> Enshrine the BBC’s editorial freedom from future government interference
> Ensure the future of Channel 4

Who would like to join me? And has anyone got a name for my dream party? How about ‘The Unmentionables’?

The Paradox of Progress revisited

The gifted blogger Richard Emerson has recently done me the honour of making me one of the first to be featured in his new podcast ‘Conversations about philosophy, science, mythology, good life, travels, and the big questions!

In this conversation we revisit my 1995 book The Paradox of Progress together and discuss striking links with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary (2009), and what has turned out to be its magisterial follow-up, The Matter with Things (2021).

Daunting company

This has taken me back to the period of several years in the 90s during which I, a perfectly ordinary NHS GP, was asked to write about the book, give formal lectures and address numerous meetings, including one in The Hague – when the President of the Dutch College of GPs invited me to give the opening keynote of their annnual congress with the wonderful words, ‘Your book puts words to feeling that are felt by many Dutch GPs‘. A third of all the GPs in Holland were in the hall – 1,500 of them – and I remember they all arrived by bicycle or public transport.

With his friendly, informal style, his distinctive Norwegian accent, his wide-ranging erudition, and his insight, Richard Emerson is the ideal intervewer. I found he had picked out perfect extracts from my book to guide our conversation, showing the links with McGilchrist and showing how much we were on the same wavelength as we explored these fascinating and immensely important ideas.

Here is one extract he picked out:

We use the word ‘unbalanced’ to describe an insane mind. Thus the accumulated wisdom embodied in the very language we speak acknowledges the fundamental role of balance in the definition of sanity. So when I say that the common mind of our society is unbalanced, I am making a very serious diagnosis. I am saying that the common mind of society is, to some extent, insane. But that is what I do say.

The Paradox of Progress, Chapter 11 : Good Intentions

I’d love people to hear my conversation with Richard. I think it puts words to feelings that are just as widely shared as they were 25 years ago, and are no less crucially important: Link to the conversation/podcast

My book was reprinted three times by Radcliffe Medical Press, one of their most successful titles ever, but has been out of print since they were taken over many years ago. I have long sought ways to make it available once again. So the other thing that Richard has done for me is to introduce me to Payhip – a simple way to publish a pdf version of a book and make it available for download for a modest charge:

Link to downloadable pdf of The Paradox of Progress

This complements the online version which has been free to read ever since I placed it on my website some twenty years ago. It is complete with a clickable index of ideas in the book, which as far as I know is rarely used, but might help some people:

Link to The Paradox of Progress on my old website

The importance of being honest.

My teenage grandson called me 10 days ago saying he wanted to talk about the BBC relay of Prime Minister’s Questions that he had been watching earlier (at school – don’t ask, but he is doing Politics and Ethics).

He wanted to discuss the matter of our nation’s Prime Minister lying through his teeth. Again.

So, after we’d growled together about that for a bit, I asked him, hoping it didn’t sound patronising, or grand-patronising, whether he thought this behaviour was setting a terrible example to young people,

Yes, yes, exactly. Absolutely. And what’s more – and to me even more importantly – he absolutely agreed that the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, across the House from Johnson, was a patently honest man.

The next morning, while I was sitting at the desk in my study, I spotted the paper-boy bringing our Guardian. And, as I sometimes do because of our embarrassingly-low letterbox, I got up to open the front door to make it easier for him.

At first he didn’t seem to see me because, unusually, he was engrossed in the front page headlines about those same events in parliament as he walked down the slope. So I said something rueful about the news not getting any better. And we exchanged wry smiles.

He’s a nice young man, been doing his round for years, reliable in all weathers, sun & rain, ice & snow. So on impulse I added, probably a little too vehemently, “There ARE some honest people, you know.”

Another shy nod. Then, as he moved back towards the road I called after him – ‘You’ll find them in every back street in Alton. I was a doctor here once, I know.”

As indeed I do – I know from my personal experience that there is no truer fable than The Widow’s Mite. That was the old woman who would give away her last penny to help someone else.

When I was their age (I imagine the two lads are about the same age) we were brought up learning about the kind of heroes who valued their honour more than their life. Romantic nonsense perhaps, but that was the official line, and that was the ideal we held in our minds. People at least pretended to be good. If someone told a lie, they looked sorry. They apologised. If they were important people and it was an important lie, they resigned. Or were sacked.

Those were the days.

The tragedy is that I don’t think it is just Boris Johnson, or for that matter Donald Trump. It seems to be part of a general decline in morality in our age. And don’t pretend I mean gay marriage, or women’s right to control what happens to their bodies, or (horror) unmarried people having access to contraception, or (enhanced horror) living together.

I mean the terrible fact that a very large proportion of people, ordinary people, ordinary voters (crucially), don’t seem to mind. A large number of people have apparently lost the ability to discriminate truth from falsehood, or if they can see the difference, they have come to think it doesn’t matter.

I have written about this in earlier posts, but I have just found a passage near the end of The Matter with Things, the book I recommended in my last post, which links this modern change to the transcendency of mechanistic, left hemisphere thinking, and to the decline in religion:

“When our society generally held with religion, we might indeed have committed many of the same wrongs; but power-seeking, selfishness, self-promotion, narcissism and entitlement, neglect of duty, dishonesty, ruthlessness, greed, and lust were never condoned or actively and openly encouraged – even admired – in the way they sometimes are now. In other words we have lost all shame.

Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things p.1,293

To our shame, that is Boris Johnson in a nutshell.

The consequences of this change include a loss of trust, and of respect for authority. There has never been a time when we needed to trust authority more than we do today, with so many crises facing our civilisation. It is a terrible time to lose it – and to give terrible examples to the young. That is why – to put my heart on my sleeve – why I do quite deliberately set out to be an example of integrity for young people, like these two young men, and thus to deserve their trust.

I am blessed with the knowledge that my father was a man of complete integrity. He was a government scientist of some distinction – a public servant during the war and for the rest of his life. His life was largely governed by a sense of duty. My mother used to say, proudly, that if he was sent a bottle of wine at Christmas (a rare event) he would send it back. When he died – 47 years ago – heavens! – the British ambassador he had served under at the US embassy, Sir Roger Makins, wrote to her saying that he had ‘done great service for his country’. Neither she nor any of the rest of us ever knew what that service was. He never talked about it. Of course. We grew up immensely proud of him. And half assuming everyone had fathers like that.

I remember once asking him why Britain continued to enjoy such a disproportionately high standing in the world, and he said something about its institutions having a kind of basic integrity.

Those were the days.

So – I was an embassy child in America in the 50s. I started high school in Washington DC immediately after Edmund Hilary had reached the summit of Mount Everest, Roger Bannister had broken the four minute mile, Sir John Cockcroft had ‘split the atom’, WW2 ace Neville Duke had just broken the world speed record in his (British of course) Hawker Hunter jet fighter, and the world had used television to watch, in grainy black and white, the magnificent pageantry of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

So fiercely patriotic was I after all this that I stood proudly silent as my classmates put their hands on their hearts at the start of every school-day to ‘pledge allegiance to the flag’ which was always hanging in the corner of the classroom. And (to everyone’s surprise) I managed to keep my English accent right through until my return with my elder brother at the end of his second summer holiday to join him at boarding school in Abingdon.

And so, eventually, I became a doctor – a role in society for which Trust is absolutely fundamental. ‘Trust me I’m a doctor‘ is sometimes used ironically, as in Dr Phil Hammond’s funny stuff, but it wouldn’t work as a joke if the natural role didn’t require that status. I used to say, when colleagues quoted surveys showing doctors enjoyed higher levels of trust than almost anyone else, that that was like doing a survey to show that cars have wheels. Being trusted is precisely what the ecological role of ‘doctor’ is.

In a letter to our Member of Parliament recently I was bold enough to claim authority for something I was saying by pointing out that I had spent my life behaving so as to earn the right to be trusted. And, as I have suggested in another earlier post, integrity is one of the nearest things to an absolute in life. Reputation is something that can be destroyed at a stroke – a single lapse by an honest man, by say, Keir Starmer telling a single lie, or by my father, say, keeping a single Christmas gift from a company in the running for public money, would shatter that magic. Not least – or even most of all – in the mind of the individual him or her self. (Self-respect – that’s another magic thing) That very fragility of reputation is what makes it so precious, and ultimately so powerful.

I long to live again in a country led by people worthy to inspire young people with such values.

But Britain does still possess one such, crowning asset – one whose reign has spanned the whole of the period I am taking about. One who sat alone in an almost empty chapel at the funeral of her husband of 73 years. With whom she had stayed in the heart of London throughout the blitz, in spite of having so many safer alternative homes. Who had turned down the offer of dispensation from the lockdown rules for that epoch-marking funeral – such a tragic shadow of what it would have been in normal times – because of her overriding sense of duty to set a good example.

Powerful example

It is sickening to have to bottom-out this noble tone by noting that the home of the Prime Minister who set those rules, and who instructed the police to enforce them ruthlessly throughout the land, rocked the night before to the sound of jolly parties. This was the home of a Prime Minister who is still supported by a jolly political party that doesn’t seem to understand why it matters very much. And which is now hoping it will be a long time before the police investigation tells them whether or not it was a bad thing to do.

Enough of that. Let’s pop in a break-line while I retch.

Was that ‘a little too vehement’? I don’t know. But I do know that it has never been more important to set a good example. Which is why I try. And where we came in.

The Matter with Things [Iain McGilchrist]

I have just posted this review on Goodreads of this massively important book.

The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World by Iain McGilchrist

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nobody who understands Iain McGilchrist to be a Master, as I do, could commit the folly, fall into the trap, of trying to be his Emissary.

Iain McGilchrist has spent the 11 years since the publication of The Master and his Emissary’ assembling, arranging, tuning the left hemisphere tools he has to use – words – to try to evoke in our minds the cloud of right hemisphere ideas that he wants, with burning urgency, to share with us.

He knows – as well, I submit, as anyone has ever known – that it is intrinsically impossible to transmit such ideas as any kind of finished ‘thing’, however long he might strive to perfect its intricacy. That’s the point. That, in essence, is ‘the matter with things’. He will explain if you let him.

And to do this, the master must do his best to choose the words – the things – accepting their limitations, to be sent into the world, and you, as his emissary. And to that extent his labour is now ‘finished’. He has brought forth a book, or actually two books — two things indeed — and beautiful things they are, thanks to his personal curation.

That’s a paradox of course, but that mystery is in his message as well.

I further submit that any person who reads The Matter with Things with a receptive mind (is that too much to ask?) or who listens to McGilchrist’s recorded talks and conversations, and who becomes aware of the richness of his experience across disparate fields, expert and professional, and who witnesses his easy familiarity with such an astonishing range of sources (the Bibliography alone fills 182 pages of Volume II) and glimpses, with me, the almost superhuman achievement of organising this prodigious whole, conceived over such a long period of time, into one coherent, lucid, readable, indeed compelling, narrative thread, can doubt that he is uniquely equipped for this task.

A task which is nothing less than to challenge the basis of Western, reductionist thought since the time of Plato. He’s not the first, but may well be the best. From my own rich experience of life, as a husband, a father, a family doctor as it happens, plus a lot else, his message rings profoundly true. I believe it is incredibly important.

I urge you to get the book and read it and respond to it in your particular way. We shall never see its like again.

The above was written to post on Waterstones bookshop website as I reached the end of Volume I. I don’t want to lose its freshness by re-writing it now. But now, having reached the end of the whole work, I just want to add that the second volume brings the thesis to a magnificent and (as others have said) potentially life-changing culmination.

And the other thing I would say is: yes, by all means dip in and out if you like, as some have suggested here, but I strongly urge you to read the whole thing, and take your time, and let it gradually sink in. It is most beautifully readable, and the whole journey a slow crescendo of wonder.

View all my reviews

The Tale of Truth and Lie

– and the Other Pandemic

There is a well-known saying about falsehood, credited variously to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and others, which goes something along the lines of a lie going half way round the world before truth gets its boots on. The following rather delightful version was published in an 18th century book of sermons by the English polymath Thomas Francklin:

Falfehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth ; whilft truth lags behind ; her fteps, though fure, are flow and folemn, and fhe has neither vigour nor activity enough to purfue and overtake her enemy.

1787, Sermons on Various Subjects, and Preached on Several Occasions by Thomas Francklin. (Google Books Full View)

Truth has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy.’

Now isn’t that the truth. Thomas Francklin had no inkling that it would one day be possible for ideas, true or false, to spread to, quite literally, ‘all corners of the earth’, or that they wouldn’t need wings, winds, steps, or even time, to do so. But of course he didn’t mean his words to be taken literally—he was saying something about human nature which is just as valid today as it was two centuries ago, which had its origins in primitive society. And which, at this moment in time, is at the root of one of the greatest threats that humanity has to face – a virtual pandemic of false information.

I will start by considering two ideas—two messages—two tales to use Francklin’s word. I’ll call one Truth and the other Lie. And I’ll consider them as viruses competing for dominance in the ‘culture medium’ of modern, hyper-connected society—on the analogy of the Covid virus spreading throughout the hyper-connected world of international travel. (If you picture the charts you sometimes see of air routes and data highways linking all the countries of the world—both of them looking like nerve tracts in some giant brain—the analogy is obvious)


At first sight Truth seems to have all the advantages in this contest—it is Truth, after all!—the ‘Sword of Truth’, cutting through Falsehood and gleaming with Righteousness. It is Logical, it makes Sense.

It is backed by all the experts—or OK, most of the experts!—Oh, for heaven’s sake—all but three out of every hundred experts, and even they have hardly a single respected scientific paper between them!—Oh, give it a rest!

Truth is based on Evidence and it can be Tested and Verified. Truth, my children, is Sacred. You just have to accept it. Or as I remember my headmaster James (later Sir James) Cobban putting it in his final reply to an uppity 6th Former, ‘I am right and you are wrong’.

But then again Truth is Dull. It is flat, objective, and unemotional. What’s worse, it makes a Virtue of being like that. Which is sickening,

And Truth is Complicated. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, ‘Truth is never pure and rarely simple’. And it is often Difficult. One of the things we learn at school is that science (formalised Truth) is inaccessible to all but a few nerds. You only have to see the scientific illiteracy of contestants on TV quiz shows relative to their knowledge of celebrity culture or even the arts.

Which makes it another big snag that Truth cannot be Certain (except perhaps in limited areas like mathematics). But that’s what Science insists on telling us—scientific truth can only ever be provisional (even though it is the best explanation so far achieved for reconciling a host of reliable observations by generations of painstaking observers—but that’s complicated too, Oh dear!)

And Science can have an infuriatingly smug certainty that cries out for challenge by any self-respecting, red-blooded person. And some of the implications of its discoveries about reality are too deeply uncomfortable and disturbing for many rational and well-meaning people to accept—for example the many worlds hypothesis in cosmology, or the conclusion, which is insisted upon (with a vehemence which is surely unscientific) by what we might call scientific fundamentalists, that life—and for that matter the whole universe—is ultimately purposeless.

On top of all that ‘truth hurts’.

Charles Barsotti, 1933-2014, The New Yorker

Indeed, Truth can be frightening. Especially when it comes to climate change. Or , as Al Gore put it gently in the title of his classic book: the truth about the climate crisis is ‘Inconvenient’. So anyone who helps us to doubt this kind of truth is going to be popular.

And Truth is Constrained; it is held, most of all by itself, to a higher standard than Lie. Just as it takes a spotless car to show a spot, one proven lie can utterly destroy that precious thing, Reputation. While the thirty thousand and first untruth from a well-known liar is just part of his expected style, a single ‘spot’ on a proudly honest man can cast doubt on the truth of everything else he says.

Which brings me finally to that tedious thing, Morality, and the further constraint on Truth that it has to obey the Rules of civilised behaviour.


So what about message ‘Lie’?

Let’s face it – Lie’s got all sorts of advantages in the race for viral spread. Thomas Francklin was talking about the ease with which false information could propagate in the ‘culture medium’ which existed in 18th century England. In those days it could only spread by human contact, or through letters and/or printed materials among the literate (who were about 90% of Londoners and a smaller proportion elsewhere.) But, even so, Francklin saw there was a serious problem with virus Lie that he needed to warn about.

In the ‘culture medium’ of today’s hyper-linked world, where the spread of untruths is unconstrained by distance or even time, the inherent advantages of Lie are vastly amplified. Our minds—evolved for survival in the world of first-hand experience—have little instinctive grasp of the sheer scale of what is happening in this new, unnatural environment, and modern society has hardly begun to appreciate the threat, still less to erect defences against it.

For starters, instead of having to justify itself through cool, logical explanations aimed at the head, Lie can go straight for the gut and evoke the power of Emotion.

By evoke I mean awaken, or bring out something deeply buried—some instinct, passion, feeling, prejudice. Especially, it can bring out the ancient, tribal hatred of anything perceived as other. Truth thinks the modern world has moved on from this sort of primitive stuff, but Lie knows perfectly well that it hasn’t and plays that card for all it’s worth. Which can be devastating, and we forget that at our peril.

For example, Prime Minister David Cameron, in calling his 2016 Brexit referendum, assumed that the majority of voters would be guided by their heads (Informed and expert opinion then being overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, as indeed it still is). Otherwise he would never have taken such a risk with the country’s future. But he fatally underestimated the power of Emotion—and the way hot nationalism and xenophobia can trump cool reason. And the rest of that, along with Britain’s international standing, is history.

The next advantage that Lie enjoys is not being constrained by quaint, old-fashioned things like Duty, Morality, Conscience, Guilt and Apology.

So Lie can be any message at all which presses the buttons of instant attention. And we know what those are well enough: Novelty, (‘The news’ – ‘Tonight’s main story’), Sensation, Horror (‘Man Bites Dog!’), Something Unexpected, Celebrity, Lust, Outrage, Pictures of Babies/Boobs/Atrocities, Stories of Little Davids besting Goliath Authority (Horatio at the Gate, Passport to Pimlico, Whiskey Galore).

Tuned to press one or more of these buttons, and dressed up in multi-media finery, Lie can launch itself into cyberspace and stand a chance of ‘going viral’ – finding itself passing on and multiplying like a nuclear chain reaction (think A-Bomb), regardless of time and distance, at the mere mouse-clicks of countless intermediaries—some malicious, some genuinely believing the message, some just having fun—anonymously and without personal consequences of any kind.

So we find ourselves in the midst of this pandemic of false information, hate mail and vicious and desperately-hurtful social media attacks on the finest of people—particularly on the finest of people. Dr Rachel Clarke, who writes heart-breakingly of caring for patients dying of Covid-19, is one current example. But the brave scientists who warned so many decades ago about the looming climate emergency experienced similar attacks, much of it seeded by professional deniers who creating doubt about the truth until it became almost too late to respond.

Another factor in the new situation is the distorting power of the artificially-mediated view. This is a subject I first wrote about in my book the Paradox of Progress. I had learned from my experience in general practice to glimpse, no more, the hidden/automatic power of our minds to focus on one tiny object of attention to the exclusion of the total experience hidden in our subconscious which is enormously larger than we can ever realise. In plain words, we get things out of proportion. But in the hyper-linked experience of the online world, even this selectivity of our perception has been immeasurably amplified. So that some spiteful and hate-filled obscenity typed by a lonely weirdo looms and utterly dominates the teeming multitude of decent people who are out there, entirely hidden from view.

But there is still one more factor in the spread of false information which is even more recent—it is the deliberate micro-targeting of individual people with emotive messages tuned to their personalities.

There is a sequence in the Channel 4 docudrama Brexit—The Uncivil War in which we saw Dominic Cummings, Director of the Vote Leave campaign, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, visibly reeling as the potential of this technology is revealed to him. In a secretive meeting on a park bench he is depicted being offered illicit access to Facebook’s vast archive of personal profiles, including astonishingly-detailed insights into their individual susceptibilities.

The story is documented elsewhere, as is the fact that the agency offering the ‘service’ was financially underpinned by a rich American as a trial run for its application during Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. But I have seen little evidence that many people, or indeed many politicians, have fully understood this potential of social media, when used by unscrupulous people to bypass long-established checks on the dissemination of extreme ideas and inflammatory lies, and target them, completely ‘under the radar’, with terrifying precision, directly into the minds of people chosen for their susceptibility to those particular messages.

The possibility that this was a decisive factor in 2016 is regularly discounted by commentators. But in that case it must be a coincidence that its arrival as a viable technique coincided exactly with two ‘earthquake’ election results which confounded virtually all informed expectations. Even Boris Johnson, it seems pretty clear, never expected to win the Brexit vote, or even saw it as part of his plan.

The Outrageous Leader

To return, one last time, to Thomas Francklin and his 18th Century warning. And to the significance of the fact that he preached it in a sermon. Because it was all about Morality—fighting the good fight against the Evil of Falsehood. Because the ultimate enemy of Falsehood is Truth.

We have explored the vulnerability of Truth in the modern world, but yet again, something utterly new has happened recently:

Consider this weird item in the reporting of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Something said to a New York Times reporter by a man who was waiting to cheer Donald Trump’s arrival in West Palm Beach, fresh from ducking out of the ceremony going on in Washington:

“He gave us freedom,” said Valéry Barto of West Palm Beach, who sported a Make America Great Again hat and waited nearly three hours before Mr. Trump rolled by. “He was for us. Now it’s going to be all messed up.”

Patricia Mazzei and Julia Echikson New York Times 21 Jan 2021

What possible ‘freedom’ could Mr Barto have been talking about?—which he thought explained why he loved Donald Trump with such passion and devotion. Along with ‘us’—that astonishingly—indeed terrifyingly—large proportion of American people?

In my two previous posts since last November’s election I have developed the idea that Trump’s unique appeal was to challenge all aspects of established Authority, for example what he called ‘The Washington Swamp’ and, of course, the liberal press. But crucially, and this was my insight, he also challenged the authority of Truth and Reason of itself. As though it was some looming ‘other’, imposing rules and restrictions on their God-given freedom to think and do what they liked. That, I believe, is the deep reason they loved him so uncritically, and why they continue to do so—because his rhetoric didn’t merely fly in the face of reason—he rejected Reason altogether. He told them that Truth did not exist.

It is notorious that anything Trump didn’t like he labelled ‘Fake News!’—in what seems a gloriously-ironical coinage from the teller of more ‘false or misleading claims’ than almost anyone else in history.

And his response to the Washington Post’s fact-checking (above) was simplicity itself—he just dismissed it as more fake news—giving his followers another target for their outrage into the bargain.

His special counselor Kellyanne Conway joined in the fun in that famous Meet the Press session on January 22, 2017, describing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s manifestly-false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd as ‘Alternative Facts’.

Once he had given his followers permission to escape the constraints of this tyrant Rationality, the sky was the limit. Conspiracy theories, climate change denial, vaccination rejection, paranoid ideas about distant or alien groups, authorities – ‘Brussels’ for the Europhobe, ‘Washington’ for the frontiersman – ‘others‘. Logical argument bounced off followers like water off the oiliest of ducks. Rationality, they hymned, was ‘just another theory’.

And so it went on, Trump found he could say absolutely anything at all, however outrageous—climate change was a hoax—Covid would just disappear ‘like magic’—and the starkest of evidence to the contrary made not the slightest difference to the faithful.

And so to the end, when he simply refused to acknowledge the evidence that he had lost the 2020 election, let alone heavily, and went on repeating, over and oven again, in strident tones and without evidence, that the election had been ‘stolen’. Even after his pathetic rump of lawyers made fools of themselves and the claim had been thrown out by every level of the judiciary throughout the land.

And even then a large proportion of Americans continued to believe his word against all the evidence, and the most devoted among them massed in Washington waving ‘Stop the Steal’ banners. They continued to believe after he whipped up an armed mob which then invaded the Capitol to try to prevent the formal recognition of Biden’s victory, and they did so even after lawmakers of both parties had cowered in the Chamber of the House in all-too-justified fear for their lives.

But even after all this his followers continue to take his word for it that the election was stolen, and a large number of Republican lawmakers persist in challenging the validity of the result. And still a crowd in West Palm Beach cheered him for giving them their ‘freedom’.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon, a similar downgrading of truth has infected public life in England. In his new book, The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, Peter Oborne says “I have been a political reporter for almost three decades, and I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson.”

Once again, the significant thing for me is how little Johnson’s supporters seem to mind. As William Davies comments in his review of Oborne’s book, “In a sane world this would be a political obituary”. He continues, “The question is why [this catalogue of proven lies]—and books such as this—do [Johnson] so little harm.” And his explanation is like the beginning of my own: “[in the contemporary world] where our honesty and character are constantly being tracked by managers, credit-raters, customers and one another, there is a certain relief in the spectacle of the outrageous leader who seems immune. ”

OK, Johnson and Trump are ‘outrageous leaders’, and huge numbers of people love them for it. I suggest it is because they have released their followers from long subjugation to Tyrant Truth.


Pulling these threads together, it is clear that something in the modern world has unleashed a terrible anarchy. It is one of the greatest threats to democracy, to civilisation, and even to humanity itself. But social distancing isn’t going to work this time.

Currently there is a wave of wild disinformation threatening to hamper the anti-Covid vaccination effort. In an attempt to raise herd immunity to this virus, Cambridge University has released a free computer game Go-Viral which tutors you in the tricks commonly used to make lies spread. They have evidence that seeing it from the inside like this increases people’s real-life resistance to misinformation, making them less likely to pass it on, and so breaking the cycle. Give it a try—I learned a lot.

Another sign that the fightback has begun is the main op-ed in today’s Guardian (9th Feb), by Timothy Garton Ash, What are facts? What is fake news? A new battle is coming. He emphasises the vital role of the independent press and responsible public service broadcasting.

The BBC itself has tended to fail in this solemn duty through seeing its news service in terms of entertainment. Controversy is another trigger button for viral spread, which I omitted from my list above, and BBC producers love it. For years they kept the aging fossil-fuel lobbyist (and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer) Nigel Lawson on hand to ‘balance’ any new call for action by an eminent climate scientist who had spent a whole career in the field, and to undermine the urgent message with blatantly untrue claims. I remember hearing one such programme when they actually gave Lawson the last word. No wonder climate change denial is still rife today.

It will be evident from references in this post that I subscribe to two independent newspapers, the Guardian and the New York Times. Both are free of political or billionaire sponsorship and they depend entirely on voluntary support from ordinary people. I see it as a public duty to do my bit, and I hope anyone reading this feels the same. The motto of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, is ‘Comment is Free, Facts are Sacred’.

The ultimate enemy of Falsehood is Truth. The greatest lie of all is that Truth does not exist. And the greatest Truth of all is that Truth does exist, and that it can be known.

And that’s the truth.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” 1819

PS – It will be apparent to anyone who has read this far that this post has lacked any of the buttons which make for viral spread. Except perhaps Controversy, but we shall see. I rarely get more than a handful of readers for my posts, except for the two I’ve done since President Biden’s election. But I would dearly love to hear what people think of this one, so any comments would be really welcome. Please don’t be shy. I’ll try to write something lighter next time, with nice pictures. And jokes. But now I have everything else to get back to.

‘Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging.’

Thank you for helping me to remember that.

I don’t think I said very much.  I was looking at the little horse

I had suggested we stopped walking for a moment, ostensibly to look at the little horse (and photograph it, complete with its stumpy legs, as you see in the picture), but actually so that I could write down my precious new idea before I forgot it again.

Something about Reason – that was what I had been saying as we walked together yesterday morning – Authority, and what was happening in today’s world to Truth. There was some new way of putting it together that had come to me suddenly last night when I was in the last stage of consciousness before going to sleep. Too close to sleep to summon the willpower to rouse myself and write it down. In case it evaporated in the night.

Which of course it did.

Read more…

On with the celebration

It is of course deeply worrying that so many Americans voted to give Donald Trump another four years – after everything they know he is, and everything they know he has done. We wonder what can possibly have got into them.

But I think there is a dark side of human nature that is there, to greater or lesser extent, in all of us, and right-wing political messaging plays to that side and presses that hidden button with perennial effect.

Read more…

A grain or two of truth

W.S.Gilbert put a lot of himself into Jack Point, the tragic jester in The Yeomen of the Guard – the nearest thing to serious opera he and Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote in their long partnership.

Yeomen of the Guard 2004 me as Jack Point

I was lucky enough to play Jack Point myself, one of a number of roles I had over the years with Alton Operatic & Dramatic Society our small town’s own company – AODS for short.

Naturally, people see Gilbert first and foremost as a jester – his wit and brilliance with rhyme and meter have rarely if ever been equalled.

But I remember being aware as I played Jack Point that there was another side to Gilbert, that he also wanted to say serious things about human nature, about society, about scandals in high places. Which is exactly what he is saying as he describes the power of the jester’s role in “I’ve jibe and joke…” the great song that I – a recently retired doctor in the town, no less – had the joy of singing:

Winnow all my folly, folly, folly and you’ll find
a grain or two of truth among the chaff

A grain or two of truth. Gilbert’s librettos were full of truths, surely one of the reasons why so many amateur companies did little but ‘G&S’ – and in some cases nothing but G&S – for generations.

Read more…
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