I keep being puzzled by the passion of believers — or perhaps I am puzzled as to why I’m not one, and what life would be like if I were. Doesn’t life have anything more to offer these people than a passionate attitude towards or against something? I’m not speaking of Christians in this context — the ones I know keep their passion to themselves.

I started on this theme in the last sentence of yesterday’s post: if someone I met  socially began to harangue me about the need to keep emissions down,  or save the ABC, or protect whales, or get rid of the Abbott Government — because doom faced us if we did not do so — I might remind the speaker of the Great Horse-Manure Scare of 1894. But the passionate one would tell me that This (whatever it was) was Different. Passionate people are, at least in my experience, uninterested in hearing about evidence that is contrary to their passion.

And they seem to like other passionate people of the same persuasion. You can see this on social media, where wild statements about this or that get ‘Liked’, and enthusiastically endorsed with similar words. It is a mistake to present an alternative view: you are instantly derided.  I find this kind of passion dreadfully boring in politics, but it is the stuff of social media, of the electoral battle that never ends, and of a good deal of what passes for news.

To take an example from yesterday’s news, our present Government has to deal with a large public-sector debt. Opinions are divided as to whether the previous governments overdid it in spending to avoid the Global Financial Crisis, but we did avoid the crisis in large part. We have a substantial debt as a consequence, and also because those previous governments committed themselves to later expenditures based on assumptions about likely income that have since proved to have been wrong. Again, opinions differ as to whether or not the previous governments should have had those assumptions about likely income. But the fact is that we have this large debt.

Now many of the passionate seem to me uninterested in this fact, especially if there are reductions in public expenditure for services or activities that they think are important. Some of them seem to think that somehow the debt has been caused by, or worsened by, what the present Government is doing, though it seems hardly to have had time to do anything expensive. How quickly the debt should be paid off is a matter for the Government, and unless there is a sudden great increase in government revenue, it has to be done by reducing expenditure.

The passionate don’t like this, but if it has to happen the cuts should be made in Defence or on parliamentary salaries or somewhere that does not interest them. Why don’t I feel like this? I simply don’t know. I never have. Perhaps I had an untroubled childhood (though I don’t remember it like that), or was never the victim of bullying or capricious decisions by others (though I wouldn’t agree about that either). My two grandfathers were both from the skilled working class, and my aunts and uncles all rose to be members of the educated middle class. Have I had an easy life, and don’t know what it is to be poor and miserable and a victim of injustice?

Maybe not, but I have my doubts that the passionate all had such troubled upbringings. Maybe they did, but if so I would point out to those I know reasonably well that they seem to have done OK in the rush and tumble of life — do they really need to maintain all this passion? And with the passion comes confidence and assurance that They Are Right. I was struck by this when a chance encounter brought a former associate and friend into view, and we had coffee and conversation. What had we been doing since we last met? And all that. I mentioned that I now had a website.

‘Oh yes,’ came the reply. ‘I stopped reading it once I realised that you had become a climate sceptic!’

Whoops! Now this former associate is skilled, intelligent and hard-working. But (and it was true when we worked together) along with those virtues is a conviction about History and Being on The Right Side of It.  Climate sceptics are plainly On the Wrong Side. The two of us managed to have a perfectly civil and enjoyable conversation for an hour or so, but we did not depart from safe ground.

As I see it, the story of humanity is on the whole one of progress, with education for all and a basic equality of respect for one another important ingredients. But there are many other important ingredients too, and the mixture differs from time to time. I’m less sure about what the right mixture at any time is, or ought to be, than was the case when I was young.

Perhaps I’m just a Grumpy Old Man. And it is unfortunately true that I am growing less tolerant and more suspicious of the passionately confident.

Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Walter Starck says:

    The passion you refer to seems to be strongly associated with a preference for righteousness over gratitude and a comfortable lifestyle not dependent upon personally producing anything that others are free to choose or not. Group think then reinforces this tendency in groups where such circumstance is prevalent. Academia, the public service, the idle rich and welfare recipients are prominent examples.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    I agree totally where does all that passion come from? My background is different I am a farmers son who left the farm to work in Sydney as an apprentice in the railways. One factor I think is I was raised completely without religion. In the mid sixties I was a member of a communist driven union and also the humanist society. I married in sixty nine into a family who members of the communist party. For me Whitlam was hero Fraser the devil and Hawke the risen Christ child. I say all this to point out that I was very much of the left and that many I knew were of the same thinking. To make the point my eldest brother was a cabinet minister in both the Whitlam and Hawke governments. But I had a problem I have never been able to just accept what to believe because of authority.

    For brevity I will just say my belief in the true left way was sorely tested by the left support for the increasing global warming hysteria. Because I could not be told what to believe without question and attempts to understand were blocked by authoritarian arguments. John Howard’s government destroyed any respect I had for the left viewpoint, they were not the devil and were not about grinding the working classes down into poverty. This change had a large effect on my social contact with friends and family. With some there is a truce not to discuss politics or climate change, which works imperfectly. There is one who slags of at the current government, hates Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop but does not give reasons it is very difficult to not challenge them. After making a joke at my expense and many other putdowns I stopped communications with my elder brother 5 years ago.

    If you diverge from the belief system of the a group you will find that it is the belief that glues the group together. You are not just trying to communicate with an individual you are threatening their membership of the group. You assume the role of a heretic since you will cast doubt on their belief system that is also held by their friends and relatives.

    • whyisitso says:

      “To make the point my eldest brother was a cabinet minister in both the Whitlam and Hawke government”

      Sounds like you’re a Keating?

      • Mike O'Ceirin says:

        Certainly not Mr Miller please don’t ask more really I should not have mentioned it. I have an irrational dislike of Keating and cannot stand listening to him. How is Michael Willsee these days? I liked your thoughts Julius on the world pity you died 26 years ago.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Mike, your last spar is about ‘groupthink’, and there is no doubt that it is a useful way to keep the passions high.

      • Mike O'Ceirin says:

        I am saying belief in the religious sense is the same as groupthink. A group forms around a common thought a ‘totem’, Nick Kater wrote about this. A study of the most primitive religions showed the totem bound the members together. It can be anything as long as it is believed without question. The most bizarre one I have heard of was kangaroo fat.

  • PeterE says:

    Yes, I met a highly qualified chap at the university the other day. He was so angry that Tony had not apologised for the spying. He could not believe that there might be an alternative view. Why is it that the universities are so full of this type? Never get between a believer and the future that he has glimpsed and knows will work.

  • Lysander says:

    I’m not passionate! I just absolutely loathe totalitarian and dictatorial regimes in whatever shape they appear (and the supporters of such). Where lines like “how dare you question us” are always in play.
    I have read too much of the hundred million dead under Stalin and his mates; tens of millions more dead across South East Asia – all because of an unfounded and unqusetionable belief.
    The same idea pervaded Nazi Germany and I am sick of hearing “fascism” as right wing when the actualisation was the same as Communism and “Socialist” was in that party’s title.
    Many folk in the ABC still toe the Vietnamese Communist line and these are the same folk who unquestionably proselytize their climate faith; burning of witches and sinners.
    As a genuine Roman Catholic I (and i’m not converting here) have been given God’s evolutionary creation to look after – but humanity is the pinnacle and jewel of this creation. When amoeba at the bottom of the ocean becomes more important than human life I begin to worry.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    For academics, the primacy of the intellect is a basic assumption but for many people how they feel is just as important as what they think.

    I viewed the fourth ‘Keating’ episode last night on iView and Kerry O’Brien’s final question – about how Keating viewed Wran’s comment about not getting too far ahead of voters – almost sent Paul Keating into a paroxysm of passion. He despises focus groups, weak pragmaticism, playing the numbers game etc; his argument was that you only get one crack at the big issues and as a leader you should go for it. Quite sadly, he mentioned that those who have loved him, have paid a high price but for all of that, many Australians owe Keating a great deal.

    Whatever one thinks of Paul Keating, he brought a combination of thought and passion that was quite formidable.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I knew him slightly, and respected him. He was (is still?) an autodidact. Donald Horne said of him that ‘Nothing exists for Paul until he’s discovered it — and then he needs to tell you all about it!’

      I wouldn’t be surprised if the passion did not come from that discovery, and in the way he had to tell us about what was important to him.

  • margaret says:

    I think it’s firstly one’s temperament that creates passionate or dispassionate responses. Nature and nurture do go together hand in hand though. The plasticity of the developing brain and the circumstances of one’s life combine and forge character but temperament is there at the beginning and that’s why we say babies are placid or excitable etc. Obviously they can’t be passionate, they can’t be ‘believers’ nor can they be rational, logical, sceptical. That is all learned with the intelligence you were gifted with combined with upbringing, experiences and education and whatever else is perceived to affect one’s narrow or broad view of events. But behavioral responses seem to come quite deeply from one’s temperament.

  • David says:

    My passion on this issue comes from comments by people like Abbott,
    who with a year-10 level of scientific literacy at best, has the temerity to dismiss
    the analysis of organisations like NASA and the Australia Bureau of Meteorology
    (BOM) as “total crap”.

    I believe in scientific process! Currently I accept that CO2 cause global warming. I also believe in vaccinating our children, fluoridation of our water is beneficail, that smoking causes lung cancer and CFCs deplete ozone. While I accept that none of these beliefs are immutable truths, until new scientific evidence demonstrates otherwise, I accept these statements to be true.

    I am happy to change my position on AGW, when NASA and the Australian
    Bureau of Meteorology change their position.

    Two years ago I brought a copy of Principia as my silent protest to Abbott. Newton’s Principia as you would know, is one of the cornerstones of the Enlightenment and Western Civilisation as we know it. That book gives me the inspiration to engage the non-scientific misinformation (by people like Warren Truss or Allan Jones) that frequently clouds this debate.

    • whyisitso says:

      As you obviously know much more about this subject than any sceptic (eg Richard Lindzen), you’ll be able to tell us precisely how much of the global warming of the last century has been caused by CO2 and how much by natural causes. You’ll also be able to tell us how much of a multiple to apply to the greenhouse effect from feedbacks. Just wondering, as I can’t seem to get data from other “believers”.

      • Jame-s says:

        whyisitso’s questions to David are of course designed to be very difficult if not impossible to answer, not even Richard “cigarettes are perfectly safe” Lindzen could do so.

        But it does it follow that not knowing the precise answers somehow disproves AGW? Hardly.

        There are multiple lines of evidence that show AGW is a reality and indeed is happening now. Here’s 10 for starters.

        These four pieces of evidence show that humans are raising CO2 levels:

        1. Humans are currently emitting around 30 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

        2. Oxygen levels are falling as if carbon is being burned to create carbon dioxide.

        3. Fossil carbon is building up in the atmosphere. (We know this because the two types of carbon have different chemical properties.)

        4. Corals show that fossil carbon has recently risen sharply.

        Another two observations that show that CO2 is trapping more heat are:

        5. Satellites measure less heat escaping to space at the precise wavelengths which CO2 absorbs.

        6. Surface measurements find this heat is returning to Earth to warm the surface.

        And finally four indicators show that the observed pattern of warming is consistent with what is predicted to occur during greenhouse warming:

        7. An increased greenhouse effect would make nights warm faster than days, and this is what has been observed.

        8. If the warming is due to solar activity, then the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere) should warm along with the rest of the atmosphere. But if the warming is due to thegreenhouse effect, the stratosphere should cool because of the heat being trapped in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere). Satellite measurements show that the stratosphere is cooling.

        9. This combination of a warming troposphere and cooling stratosphere should cause the tropopause, which separates them, to rise. This has also been observed.

        10 It was predicted that the ionosphere would shrink, and it is indeed shrinking.

        These are all empirical observations that the Earth is warming and that human activity is the cause. Not a dastardly model in sight

        • Don Aitkin says:

          David,

          Your source is mostly a website, and when the author finishes his piece with ‘Skeptics, deniers and habitual contrarians have just lost the remnant of their tattered credibility’, I do raise my eyebrows just a little. The Berkeley results are not trivial, but they do not bear the weight of showing that human activity has caused 75% of temperature rise. And the pause or halt is a problem: carbon dioxide goes on increasing but temperature has stopped doing so, nor shows any sign of rapidly increasing.

          • David says:

            Don,
            Yes agreed with your first point. There is plenty of room in the debate for skeptics of good faith to continue to make an important contribution to this debate.
            Its not a bad study. In your academic career how many scientific papers have you reviewed that analyze a dataset with 14 million observations?
            The “pause”, or more accurately the slow down, is included in the Muller’s analysis. The date he analyses continue right up to 2009. So these “pause arguments” are not particularly convincing as these data are incorporated.
            The point is that current scientific orthodoxy attributes about 75% to 90% of global warming over the last centaury, to CO2.

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