The National Forelock, There for the Tugging

Sitting in homebound isolation gives the mind the opportunity to muse on many things, not least the lockdown itself, which is an unprecedented, muse-worthy event  that gives us, perhaps, an interesting opportunity to glimpse the Australian “soul.”  As I sit peering through the curtains doing my bit by doing nothing, I marvel at the ease with which the government has imposed this astonishing lockdown — the way virtually the whole population has simply rolled over and submitted to the State’s whim.

So many people are allowing themselves to be persuaded by “experts”, even when there are so many conflicting expert opinions to be sampled, and even when “expert” opinion itself seems to change on a week by week, even a day by day, basis.

Remember when face masks were ineffective?  Except for our “frontline heroes”,  who squealed to the press every time they looked like running short.

Remember when it was madness to close our borders, until it wasn’t?

Remember when the purpose of “flattening the curve” was to ensure the continuing availability of hospital beds and ventilators? Now its purpose  is to ensure the complete elimination of the COVID-19 before we can get lives and the economy back on track.

It now looks like the world can be divided into two parts – those aiming at a COVID-free status, and those whivh are not, with permanent border closures between the two, I assume. I’m not sure how that will work out in the long term. But then it is not my problem or yours. We’ll cede such discretion and judgement to those “experts”,who can be counted on to urge an immediate prescription — until tomorrow, when they will offer another. I have no idea which of the “experts” is right now, and will be right tomorrow, and which are wrong, but if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is scepticism of “experts.” And of “expert” opinion. Thomas Sowell is the only “expert” I feel that I can always rely on:

It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. [1]

Such “experts” are seldom held to account.  Most recently, because of the release of the Michael Moore film Planet of the Humans, I was reminded of the predictions of Professor Paul Ehrlich. [2]  This environmental guru painted a fearful picture of doom, gloom and mass starvation in his 1970’s best seller The Population Bomb, confidently asserting that between 1980 and 1989 some four billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in his “Great Die-Off”. Strangely, what followed was a global pandemic of obesity. That has been a salutary lesson, one for which I am grateful, as it has encouraged my robust scepticisml of “expert” opinion ever since. Remember “acid rain”?  Remember “peak oil”? Remember no more snow, dams that will never fill, the ice-free Arctic?

There is another aspect to that last point which needs highlighting: the way “expert” opinion simply erases error and proceeds without embarrassment. I refer specifically to the Medieval Warm Period, which I learnt about at primary school in lessons about the settlement and later abandonment of Greenland by Vikings. Vikings keeping dairy cows and growing wheat until the climate changed and things fell apart. Yes, even back in the Sixties fifth-graders understood climate change. Below is a global temperature reconstruction graph from the IPCC Report of 1992. Notice that it explicitly annotates both the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm period.However, by 2002, just ten years later, the IPCC presented the chart below as its new, authorised, global temperature reconstruction, the-now infamous, “hockey stick” graph. Notice how the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age were both airbrushed from existence. Not much prospect for a Viking settlement in this representation of  data, and yet it actually did happen!

My point is that, up until 2002, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of consensus-rich climate “experts” had been working around the globe collecting data and writing expert papers confirming the existence of the Medieval Warm Period and of the Little Ice Age. Then, suddenly, when this new graph appeared, the Medieval Warm Period disappeared from the scientific literature to be replaced by “unprecedented warming”. Hardly any of the establishment climate “experts”, and virtually none of the academics who had been “experts” on the Medieval Warm Period the week before, had a word to say about the hundreds of years of contradictory data scrupulously accumulated but which suddenly had been banished from “the science”. The “experts” fell meekly in behind a globally orchestrated reconstruction essentially based on tree-ring data from a single tree from Yamal in northern Russia. It has fallen to non-experts to expose the flawed nature of the hockey stick graph, and yet such people are still dismissed by those same academic “experts” as “scientific flat-earthers” and “deniers.” Hey, “climate experts” with all your “unprecedented” warming, are they again growing wheat and raising cattle in Greenland once more?

Another striking example of this phenomenon appeared recently in another academic discipline. For 200 years, “expert” academic anthropologists have been carefully studying and collecting data on the hunting and gathering lifestyle of the Australian Aborigines. There was without exception an uncontested consensus. Then, suddenly, one person publishes a book on Aboriginal “farming” based on the most addled interpretation of doctored quotes from explorers’ diaries, and again the academic “experts” meekly fall in behind the new narrative without any form of dissent. Their life’s work and that of many others is trashed in front of them, yet they bite their tongues and go meekly along with the scam. Again, it is left to the non-experts to raise arguments and attempt to preserve the integrity of the discipline and the reputations of past colleagues who can no longer defend themselves in the face of this freshly-minted narrative. It is popular to lambast our early settlers as being disrespectful to traditional Aboriginal culture, and yet here we find the professional academics, archaeologists and anthropologists, contributing to the destruction of traditional Aboriginal culture by remaining passive and diplomatically silent bystanders.

Are we supposed to respect genuine Aboriginal culture, or is what we regard as “genuine” negotiable to fit a modern fad? As Gertrude Himmelfarb noted, postmodern historians (and other “expert” academics) have been liberated from the tyranny of facts. Apparently, it is only non-professionals who  are constrained by truth:           

… postmodernism takes the rejection of absolute truth as a deliverance from all truth, and from the obligation to maintain any degree of objectivity. [3]

Strangely, as Himmelfarb pointed out, academic experts, having rejected fact as the route to absolute truth, do not feel overly concerned about inserting their own confected “facts” and then insisting that these represent “absolute truth”.

However, more importantly, if, as we have seen in the two examples presented above, “experts” can turn on a dime and repudiate their own “expert” scholarship with such insouciance whenever a new political imperative arrives, just how much importance should we give to the “expert” opinion of a today? What value can we ascribe to the “expert” opinion, for example, of the men from WHO, or the medical “experts” who meekly fell in behind them?

This leads me to a sombre observation: the Australian public appear to have accepted that a consensus of “expert” scientific opinion can be completely fluid, signing up to go wherever that consensus takes them.

In the case of COVID-19, we have fallen in with the government lock-down directives coming from government-endorsed “experts”, doing so with an eagerness I would never have had the nerve to predict. Australians have been so conditioned to believe it is the government’s job to provide solutions to everything and anything that, when a COVID virus strikes or some other black swan event makes itself apparent, we accept without question whatever course is laid down just so long as there is a suitable “expert” to stand behind it. It is almost as if it has been decreed the height of bad manners to question any and every “expert consensus” irrespective of facts and logic, or lack thereof, underpinning it.

What stands out clearly is the different attitude in the US. Sure, there are plenty of Americans, particularly the celebrity “social influencers”, who have eagerly sought out self-isolation and the opportunity to signal their virtue, but then there are the others: the Californians who are prepared to demonstrate against lockdown rather than miss a day on the beach; the Texan lady who is prepared to go to jail rather than apologise to the judge and the State for refusing to close her beauty parlour and put her staff out of work; the large number of protesters who stormed Michigan’s State Capitol building with banners and guns in opposition to unilateral decision-making affecting their livelihoods without effective consultation.

What accounts for the difference between two nations which have otherwise so much in common? History, basically. Is it the cultural memory of the War of Independence in 1775 that gives Americans a healthy suspicion of government?  [4] Is it the cultural memory of their not-so Civil War that still feeds a belief that principles are worth defending, even dying for? It’s easy to mock the Americans, to look down one’s nose at their gun culture and the like, but I can’t help thinking that this residual hint of intransigence will ultimately serve them better  — much better than the far more compliant attitude in a country founded by convicts who preferred obedience to the lash?


THE suggestion that a bit of dissent may be a healthy attribute in a modern society came early. Consider the eighteenth-century Scot, Adam Smith, in particular this passage from one of his lectures at the University of Glasgow (my emphasis):

Another bad effect of commerce is that it sinks the courage of mankind and tends to extinguish martial spirit. In all commercial countries the division of labour is infinite, and everyone’s thoughts are employed about one particular thing … The minds of men are contracted, and rendered incapable of elevation.  Education is despised, or at least neglected, and heroic spirit is utterly extinguished. [5]                                      

Samuel Johnson who, with diarist, companion and local Scot James Boswell, visited Scotland in 1773, noted and feared the same thing:

Still, the fate of the Highlands and Highlanders bothered him (Samuel Johnson). Before the Forty Five (the Jacobite rebellion of 1745), “every man was a soldier, who partook of national confidence, and interested himself in national honour. To lose this spirit, is to lose what no small advantage will compensate.” This led Johnson to wonder whether in fact any nation ought to become “totally commercial” or whether “it be necessary to preserve in some small part of the empire the military spirit”.  [6]    

This had been made plain to Smith and Johnson during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The royalists of the Lowlands had been pacified and disarmed for years, while the warrior Jacobite rebels in the Highlands were not. The defence of Scotland from these Jacobite rebels fell to local militias from the cities, and they were not much more than a joke. This exposure of the shortcomings of the soft, compliant, liberal, city dwellers left an indelible mark on the minds of Smith, Johnson and the like. That, of course, is not to say that either of them could not see the importance of an orderly, lawful civil society for the conduct of a properly functioning economy, and would ever have traded that for a gun-toting independent spirit. Preventing this kind of “mental mutilation”, Smith says in the Wealth of Nations, “deserves the most serious attention of the government.” [7] Here is Smith once more, this from his Wealth of Nations published in 1776: Preventing this kind of “mental mutilation”, he says in the Wealth of Nations, “deserves the most serious attention of the government.”

It’s the universal problem of being “civilised,” of being disarmed, pacified, and utterly dependent on our governments for law and order and protection, and consequently exposed to any inadequacy of preparation or foresight on the government’s part, while, of course, the “barbarians” around them made their own provisions.

As an example, consider the Romano-Britons, pacified for over 400 years, and who were no match for the Saxon and Pictish invaders after the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain in 450AD.  Even the Forty Five was actually a closer run thing than might be expected, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders getting as far south as Derby, while around that time the English Parliament under Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, had been privately exploring terms and conditions with James Stuart, pretender to the Crown, in the advent of a restoration of the Stuart monarchy.

Maybe the Americans haven’t forgotten the old lessons, and maybe there could be an advantage in remaining just a little uncivil. Perhaps that independent spirit provides an explanation for America’s robust economy and position as a world power. In Australia, the birth of a nation lacked the smell of gunpowder and traumatic post-natal complications experienced by American democracy, while here trust in government has never been seriously tested. Here with barely a murmur we witness our government’s insidious creep into every aspect of our lives on the promise of cradle-to-grave safety. Our politicians buy our acquiescence with our own money. Every individual life is precious, they assure us, and in the name of protecting the individual, we will lock you all up and take a quarter of a trillion dollars of your future earnings to pay for it. From Gertrude Himmelfarb again:

And when the absolute principle (of liberty) proves inadequate to the exigencies of social life, it is abandoned absolutely, replaced not by a more moderate form of liberty but by an immoderate form of government control. This is the source of the disjunction between individualism and paternalism that is so conspicuous a feature of modern liberalism. [8]

Languishing today in lockdown, re-reading my old copy of Spengler’s Hour of Decision  [9], I am surprised and amused by the author’s prescience. Substitute “Australia” for “Germany” and he seems to describe our situation very well:

The liberal formula: “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” derives from the English materialists of the eighteenth century  … The vision of the proletarian future, therefore, embraces not only the happiness of the many, which consists in happily doing nothing – once more, panem et circenses – and perpetual peace in which to enjoy it, free from all anxiety and responsibility …

… The degenerating effect of this freedom from all responsibility, which is seen similarly in children of very rich parents, has overtaken the whole working class, especially in Germany: at the first sign of any distress, appeal for help is made to the State, the party, society, or, in any case, “others.” We have forgotten how to take decisions ourselves and to live under the stress of real anxiety. [10]

Hour of Decision‘s next chapter reveals how it all worked out — probably not recommended reading for those who have forgotten how to live “under the stress of real anxiety”. It’s safer, at least in the short term, to stick with the panem et circenses.


[1]  Thomas Sowell, 2000.

[2]   See Quadrant Online  “The Movie that Gives Humanity the Flick

[3]  Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1994. Postmodernist History. In:  On Looking into the Abyss : Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society.  Vintage Books. Page 137  See a book review “Himmelfarb’s Enlightenment” by Keith Windschuttle Quadrant Online.

[4]  Spengler, Oswald, 1926. ‘The Decline of the West’. Here, I quote from the abridged-into-one-volume version by Helmut Werner, published by Modern Library, New York in 1961 , page 265

[5]  Herman, Arthur, 2001.The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. Fourth Estate, London, page 210-11

[6]  Herman, Arthur, 2001.The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. Fourth Estate, London, page 153.

[7]  Herman, Arthur, 2001.The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. Fourth Estate, London, page 211. “Mental mutilation” is presumably Smith’s term.

[8]   Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1994. Liberty : “One Very Simple Principle”? In:  On Looking into the Abyss : Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society.  Vintage Books. Page 104. 

[9]  Spengler, Oswald, 1934. The Hour of Decision, the sequel to The Decline of the West. 

[10]  Spengler, Oswald, 1934. The Hour of Decision.

13 thoughts on “The National Forelock, There for the Tugging

  • rod.stuart says:

    The generation that was inspired by the Eureka Rebellion were reluctant to kowtow to authority. Ned Kelly and the Bush Rangers were not inclined to submit to tyranny.
    The current crop of Australians, about three generations deep, have had it too good for too long. I fear that this decade will result in resistance to unreasonable authority. It is indeed unfortunate that many of us have forgotten how to behave.

  • Biggles says:

    Whenever someone tells me they are an’expert’ I shudder. The world is full of ‘experts’: expert architects whose roofs blow off, expert engineers whose bridges fall down, expert surgeons whose patients die on the table, expert defense barristers whose clients spend their lives in jail: we have plenty of ‘experts’.
    We need well-educated Generalists of mature years in senior positions, not people with a BA in basket-weaving, as so many of the current crop of ‘experts’ appear to be.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    rod.stuart, I can’t see either the people involved in the Eureka Incident, or Ned Kelly and the like, as role models for solving today’s problems. The Eureka miners had a valid complaint, but the modern unions already negotiate those sorts of issues by means much more appropriate and effective in contemporary society.
    As for Ned Kelly and the bushrangers, surely you jest. Kelly was a murderous thug with absolutely nothing to excuse his behaviour. Peter Carey might think otherwise, but most sensible people familiar with the history treat the Kelly legends with the contempt they deserve. He got his just desserts, and the only thing to regret is that it came far too late to save his victims.

  • rod.stuart says:

    “SCIENCE is the belief in the ignorance of the “experts”.
    Richard P. Feynman

    “If it’s science, there is no consensus. If there is consensus, it isn’t science”
    Michael Crichton

  • Michael says:

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s Wife

    In a ‘generalist’ education, our universities once used to teach how to differentiate between ‘experts’ who put forward differing views of a situation. In historical accounts that was particularly instructive. Students could see that various historians could assess similar things in very different ways. Now universities teach one prism, that of the left, through which all accounts of social life must be viewed, a simplistic vision which offers few tools, such as the quality of evidence used, for distinguishing one account from another. Politicians these days so often simply go with the flow.

    The need for clear-headed and well-judged assessment based on good evidence and perspective-taking also applies to science, where the idea of a ‘consensus’ always hampers genuine open enquiry.

    There is always a place for educated and skeptical ‘generalists’ who can say nay to ‘experts’ who engage in over-egging their puddings. A population dependent on ‘experts’ is a dumbed-down population.

  • Occidental says:

    For a long time now I have been interested in the shibboleth that cities are the cradle of ideas. It may well be conformation bias, but I have for some time been fascinated by the contribution of individuals who spent their childhood in rural or village communities, to the intellectual life of Australia.
    My feeling is the most important period of anyones life is the first 10 or so years during which you tend to form your underlying nature. I am of the view rural life and the freedom it offers to many young men and women, enables them to explore their own ideas, and develop an intellectual curiosity, at the same time not burdening them with the constant need to conform to the group. Australia has always been a very urban country, but with the growth in the size of farms and their mechanisation there are fewer and fewer young Australians growing up with the freedom space gives you, and Australian society is all the poorer for it.

  • T B LYNCH says:

    Tiselius discovered the separation of proteins using electricity in 1933, a remarkable advance at the time, which sounds obvious today.
    Tiselius said:- “We live in a world where unfortunately the distinction between true and false appears to become increasingly blurred, by manipulation of facts, by exploitation of uncritical minds, and by pollution of the language”.
    That was a century ago.

  • Wayne says:

    I am struck by how compliant we all are and by the authoritarian attitude of our governing classes.

    Case in point the lifting of restrictions. They are never lifted with immediate effect but at some future point usually a few days after the announcement.

    In WA we can do things after midnight of a certain day but not before under threat of fines. The only reason I can see for this is to emphasize that the government completely controls what you may and may not do and when you may do it and don’t you forget it.

    It is this petty power play which rankles very time I hear our now revered Premier, who we clap on the way to work like mindless North Korean puppets, informs us of which liberties we may now enjoy and when but not before.

    As a final end to the rant I am in the age bracket which is most susceptible to the virus and I for one regret that the whole country has been shutdown to contain the virus. The suffering that has been imposed on those whose jobs and businesses have been affected by the shutdown is beyond imagining. And I fear we haven’t really achieved anything merely postponed the inevitable.

  • simonbenson65 says:

    The reality is most academics are going to be struggling to keep their jobs and since Rugby Australia’s appalling and incompetent handling of the Folau case, for which the chairperson & entire board should be ashamed of themselves and should have been sacked, we live in a world where job security is directly related to towing the politically correct company line in all spheres of life. Any wonder academics clam up. Universities aren’t universities any more in this country. They are just monoversities full of overpaid vice-chancellors and business units foolishly selling courses in English to young foreigners who can’t even speak the language, let alone read and write sensibly in it. It is laughable how standards and anything approaching diversity of academic opinion are almost non-existent now due to this Orwellian age of the left wing “thought police” who have well and truly conquered and metastasised in almost all of our institutions.

  • wstarck says:

    We are awash in “experts”. The news media generously award the title to anyone they wish to quote. Government increasingly demands some form of certification for almost everything and universities offer advanced degrees in matters about which little is really understood.

    As for what to do about the Coronavirus, a recent widespread US survey is revealing. Two-thirds of Republicans and those who lean to the conservative side of politics want to relax restrictions and get back to work. Two-thirds of Democrats and those who lean to the liberal side of politics want to maintain a strict quarantine and have government provide payments to everyone who needs them.

    The former recognize that life is a risk and some increase in mortality must be accepted to avoid an economic collapse even more serious than the virus. The latter cringe in fear and seek protection at any cost. They appear to have no awareness of any limitations of what government can do or the necessity of productive activity to continue to provide food, power, shelter and avoid economic chaos.

  • Bernie Masters says:

    A lazy, disappointing and opportunistic article. If the author is so critical of ‘experts’, what would he have done in response to the threat posed by Covid 19? Follow the Swedish example and accept without complaint their 3400 deaths compared to Australia’s 100?

  • Alistair says:

    Bernie – I certainly would not have listened unduly to any Swedish “experts”. I would have done exactly what I did – follow the debate from as many sources as I could find, make my own decisions as to risk, and acted appropriately. I certainly would not expect the Australian taxpayer to go half a trillion dollars into State and Federal debt to preserve my miserable skin. That is my responsibility.

  • simonbenson65 says:

    Apropos of the IPCC’s ‘hockey-stick’ graph and “the science” we see trotted out as gospel by the left as incontrovertibly supporting global warming, Carl Jung’s observations in ‘The Undiscovered Self’ were especially prescient for the climate wars: “the more a theory lays claim to universal validity, the less capable it is of doing justice to the individual facts. Any theory based on experience is necessarily statistical; it formulates an ideal average which abolishes all exceptions at either end of the scale and replaces them with an abstract mean. This mean is quite valid, though it need not necessarily occur in reality. Despite this it figures in the theory as an unassailable fundamental fact. The exceptions at either extreme, though equally factual, do not appear in the final result at all, since they cancel each other out.” Jung goes on, “The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality.” The left would do well to stick to real facts, not a method that “shows the facts in the light of the ideal average” but which “does not give us a picture of their empirical reality.” As Jung concludes, such an approach “while reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way.” It seems to me that a lot of tax-payer funded climate change research in Australia (and elsewhere) is based on misleading and deceptive conduct by researchers and universities alike, all cheered on by their faculty heads, who are equally unwilling to abandon a flawed narrative to whose mast their very existence has become rusted on. If funding and research grants are being garnered by dishonesty by those within the science community who insist on peddling lies about climate change, it is only a short stop to obtaining a financial advantage by deception, which, last time I checked, is a crime. If existing offence provisions fall short, should we not amend our criminal law in this country to introduce an offence of obtaining research funding by deception? We could call it “Scientific Fraud” or “Research Fraud”. It would take minimal statutory amendment and the offence provision could be readily inserted underneath “Fraud” in most criminal statutes. Such an amendment to the law would only hold those seeking funding to a standard of honesty and accountability required of the rest of the community. It would also require funding proposals to be independently reality checked and truth checked before the public purse is wasted on what is often ideology, at best, and out-and-out fraud, at worst.

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