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Why are facts ignored?

I have been mulling over this question for months and wondering whether I can write anything coherent about it. The question is why, on so many major issues, facts get smothered by what quickly turns into a powerful conventional, frankly irrational, “narrative” that people seem unwilling to move away from.

My examples are the familiar ones that have dominated and continue to dominate so much of our lives: the lockdowns; the net zero policies on climate change; the gender issues; “de-colonising” history; and probably many more.

Let me start by stating some facts - first on the lockdowns. But I don’t want to get bogged down on saying why I believe the facts are correct. I have simply read about them from sources that seem to me sound. If you, reading this, disagree and think the facts are wrong, please don’t bother to read on: go to the sources, if you like, and question them. For the purposes of this, I want to assume that the facts are correct so that I can explore, with those like me who accept them, a different question. Why do people ignore facts?

The first fact on lockdowns is indicated in the heading of an article by Matt Ridley, the science writer, in the Daily Telegraph of 28 December 2022: “Lockdowns were a total failure”. This is evidenced by the fact that Sweden - which avoided lockdowns and followed, in the face of massive criticism, the policies that had been worked out for dealing with pandemics up until March 2020 - experienced lower mortality (from all causes) over the last three years than any other country in the world. (The country that suffered worst was, I believe, Chile - which had one of the strictest lockdowns.) Again, if you doubt any of this, don’t read on. Read Matt Ridley’s article; or study anything that Dr Jay Bhattacharya (professor of medicine at Stanford University) says on the subject – what he has described as “the single biggest mistake in public health history”. My question is why the politicians scrapped the original policies (except in Sweden), but even more important why they carried on with them in the face of evidence that they were plainly not working – and, in the case of some of the lockdown rules, where they were absurd.

Climate change is the next one. “Fighting climate change” is still very much with us – unlike, let’s hope, more lockdowns. The facts are of a different type. Obviously no one knows, as a matter of fact, what the climate will be doing in a hundred years’ time. We all know the conventional narrative: that the planet will get too warm as a result of human activities, particularly the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The facts that I want to note are what scientists tell us. Specifically, more than 1,400 scientists, including some of the most eminent and the most qualified on this subject, have published a statement (the World Climate Declaration - WCD) saying that “there is no climate emergency”, that there is no evidence that the warming that we are indeed experiencing is causing extreme weather events, and that there is no scientific justification for the measures referred to as Net Zero. Again, check it out on their website Or read what Dr Ian Plimer (professor emeritus of earth sciences at Melbourne University) has been writing on the subject for many years. My question is why politicians and the media and the public don’t seem to want to know. The media have scarcely referred to the WCD. People seem to prefer the doomsday scenario put out relentlessly by the BBC and, at its most extreme, by the likes of Greta Thunberg.

Do I need to go on to my next example: gender issues? Such as the vilification of

J K Rowling for stating an undoubted scientific fact. No, let’s move on.

I want to explore why these things happen. And crucially why they are supported by the media and the public.

First, lockdowns. Here the initial reason for the lockdown was pretty clear: Fear followed by Panic. In early March 2020, Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty were saying that we should do broadly what the original pandemic policies had recommended: essentially focused protection of the vulnerable and no lockdown. But the public, fed by the media, and seeing horrific pictures of hospitals being overwhelmed, demanded action. When Professor Ferguson of Imperial College issued his wildly misleading and exaggerated forecast of thousands of deaths, the UK government caved in. In a sense, who could blame them? They were widely criticized for not acting earlier. The situation was similar in other countries, many having locked down already. Professor Ferguson’s forecasts were hugely influential around the world.

The trickier and more interesting question is why the lockdowns were not halted earlier. Evidence started to emerge quite soon that the restrictions were unnecessary, that is to say, evidence that States that did not lock down did no worse than those that did. Added to which, the fact that lockdowns would cause massive harm, particularly to the poor and the less well-off, was completely obvious. So why did they continue?

Here we are in the realm of speculation, not fact. In my view, one of the main reasons must be the reluctance of anyone, particularly a politician, to admit being wrong. It would have been hard, if not impossible, to relax the restrictions without admitting that they had been unnecessary from the start. Politicians certainly hate to be accused of doing a U-turn. Interestingly, this seems to have prevented even the Chinese retreating from their devastating policies until quite recently.

Another reason was that the public were still frightened. This was at least partly as a result of deliberate government policy. We now know that the authorities took advice about how to frighten people enough to make sure they followed the rules. This was massively successful. And once people are frightened, it’s difficult to un-frighten them. People need to be told that the risk is no more. No one could say this. There was still a risk, albeit a small one – and frankly still is. Viruses are nasty little beasts.

But the public couldn’t have gone on being frightened out of their minds when the risks were seen to be less than had been originally feared. And also when alternative and less devastating approaches to containing the risks began to be articulated. Towards the end of 2020, when we were desperate to find a way out, and before the vaccines had arrived, three of the most eminent epidemiologists in the world (from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford universities, respectively) came out with the alternative approach (largely the one being followed in Sweden). It was called the Great Barrington Declaration.

What happened? It was promptly ignored; it got very little publicity; and the authors were attacked and vilified. The authorities in the United States, as we now know from freedom of information revelations, conspired to have them denigrated and silenced, referring to them as “fringe scientists” – take that, Oxford!

Why at this point didn’t people rebel? Some did. But most were “roundly traduced”, in the words of one of them, Lionel Shriver, by those she refers to as the “chillingly uniform journalistic cheerleaders for government restrictions”.

Faced with that, faced with the media and ordinary people still nervously following, indeed supporting the restrictions, what does your politician do? He, or indeed she, sticks to his guns. He doesn’t let a few facts get in the way. Only very few politicians are brave enough to go against what they think the public wants.

This is all getting dangerously near to blaming the irrationality on us the public. Shock, horror! Let’s move onto climate change - but here I’m afraid we can’t let the public off the hook either.

Again, we have a similar reluctance to look at facts. How often do we see reports of the World Climate Declaration in the mainstream press? Let’s blame the media. But they make their money on writing about what we want to read. Have they got it so uniformly wrong? Probably not. What drives the public reaction?

Again, we have Fear: fear that the world will become too hot to support life; fear that cities will be flooded. But has that caused panic? Hardly. As soon as some of the nasty consequences of government policies become apparent – running out of power, higher energy bills - reality quickly sets in. Maybe the dangers aren’t so real, after all. Coal-fired power stations, where they haven’t been destroyed, are back in action. Even fracking may not be such a bad idea. We haven’t heard quite so much from Greta Thunberg recently. And frankly, I often ask myself, do people really, deep down, think that anything we can realistically do will change the climate, particularly as the Chinese continue regularly to open new power stations? Surely, something other than fear must be at work.

Many years ago, Nigel Lawson confronted the same question. He, being no scientist, but being a retired politician of some distinction, was charged with looking at the then somewhat novel question of “global warming”, as part of a select committee of the House of Lords. He became deeply sceptical of the supposedly “green” policies being proposed on all sides and decided to write a book explaining why. Interestingly, even then (some 15 tears ago) he had difficulty getting it published, as publishers thought it too politically incorrect to have a market. He found himself confronted by exactly the same question that I’m now asking: why do the media, the publishing industry, the political parties and indeed the public at large want to ignore facts?

His answer, which resonates today in relation to so many of the issues we now face, was that we were then seeing what was really a “quasi-religion”. There are certainly parallels. We are guilty – of polluting the atmosphere, of destroying the environment, of endangering wildlife. We should even fear the extinction of human life if we continue with our evil ways (“The end is nigh”). But redemption is at hand – we should reduce our carbon footprint, take fewer holiday flights (unless combined with attending climate change conferences!); we should even become vegan. And, as with many religious beliefs, facts shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way.

A “quasi-religion”? Are we serious? I think we are.

Human beings have been around for a few hundred thousand years. It’s difficult, probably impossible, to identify a community of our species that hasn’t had a religion as part of its culture, as part of its identity – perhaps until the last few decades. We now see societies that are essentially secular, in which traditional religions, although they still have relevance to moral questions, have lost much of their underlying power. Fewer people even in Christian countries now like to rely on what St Paul assured the Ephesians, that in Jesus “we have redemption through his blood”.

What is the impact of this? In days gone by, religions were successful in providing spiritual support, essentially allowing people to feel that life is worth living and, crucially, allowing the individual believer to feel good about him- or her-self; and also providing an individual who maybe doesn’t feel good about himself with a means of redemption.

If we cast around and look at all the cases where people have clung onto the “narratives” we have been sold, there is a common factor. By following the creed, we are doing good. In the case of lockdowns, we were “protecting Granny”; we were “saving the NHS”. By getting vaccinated, we were protecting others (even though, interestingly, it soon became clear that this wasn’t the reality). In each case, those following the narrative were firmly of the view that they were on the moral high ground. The doubters were being callous and endangering human life.

Moving on from lockdowns, we are now “fighting climate change” and “saving the planet”.

In terms of the objectives behind all these things, who could possibly disagree? Who could disagree about saving lives? Who could disagree about saving the planet? It’s only when we confront the inconvenient facts that doubts arise and we see that the remedies so often cause more damage, even more death, than the ills we are trying to avoid.

So the answer is: Please don’t look at the facts. And sadly: Attack and vilify anyone who dares to mention them. Otherwise we might tarnish our haloes.

So the conclusion I come to is not one I find very reassuring; namely that one of the key elements of our desire to ignore facts is a desire to do good – actually not so much to do good but, frankly, to be seen to be doing good. We have the curious spectacle of politicians all around the world doing things that look good, but which in fact do terrible harm.

As someone I haven’t been able to identify said a long while ago: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

Tony Herbert

13 January 2023

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1 Comment

Jan 25, 2023

If more Brexiters had listened to the facts, we’d not be in such an economic mess today. The current government, privately admitting to the utter failure of Brexit, still refuse to be honest and admit the realities (facts) that had they listened to in the first place would not have placed us in the mess of today.

Go figure?

Facts apparently mean nothing. For the 1,400 scientists you quote that support your view on climate change there are twice as many equally reputable scientists who don’t.

Who does one believe?

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