The analogy has repeatedly been made between the way the “establishment” press, academics, politicians have treated sceptics and the the 15th and 16th century witch trials.
However, I think it is less an analogy, than two versions of the same phenomenon: the dramatic shift in culture (aka revolution) that occurs after a significant change in communication technology which empowers a new group of people, who were formally denied the ability to communicate to “the public”.
The graph below illustrates my thinking:
The red line is a metric for printing efficiency with the 1470 representing a value of 1 and other years scales accordingly, This shows that printing started having an effect from about 1470 and that most of the changes in “cost of information” had had their effect by the time of the English civil war in 1650.
Note how the peak in witch trials (grey line) occurred during the middle of the first information revolution!
This period of the witch trials was when when both the former power of the Catholic church was destroyed because of one simple change. In this period, the bible and commentary on it, which had formally only been available to very rich people who could afford scribes (i.e. the church and those like Kings), began to be published in a much cheaper form that was available to middle class people. The crux was the printing of bibles like the Kings James V Bible in 1611. The result was that whereas formally study of the bible, and commentary on it, was limited to the hugely wealthy Catholic church, after printing any Tom Dick or Elizabeth with a middle class income and without so much as a Latin education could afford to buy and study the bible AND COMMENT ON IT.
However equally pertinent to those suffering the “witch trials” of Climate sceptics is that King James I of Scotland also wrote and published a book about witchcraft titled Daemonologie in 1597. And it was such books and the ease of commenting on social issues that undoubtedly turned what had been in the 15th century a minor curiosity into a social bandwagon attacking – primarily those who could not afford to get their views into print to answer back.
In terms of the “wars of medicine”: printing empowered the newly educated “doctor” classes, disempowered the “wise woman” classes. Printing thus allowed the “doctor” classes to attack the old medical practitioners in such a vicious way that many who resisted the rise of the “doctor” classes lost their lives. Printing heralded a new type of social order in which the middle classes held far more power than they had before.
Printing was the means by which those who controlled printing came to power and the means by which control over countries changed from being one where countries were controlled by a view individuals (popes/kings) to one where the middle class (not poor) had control.
Printing may be the first revolution (if we don’t count writing itself), but it is not the only one the following are all information revolutions of various types (dates when first commercially available):
- Telegraph 1837
- Camera 1830s
- Cheap postal service 1840 (GB Penny Black)
- Telephone ~1880
- Television 1920s (Logie Baird)
It took 125 years between the inventing of printing and the English Civil war. I would argue that the speed at which information changes have an effect is accelerating. The 1830s to 1920s saw a series of major changes in information. What was the result?
In the UK the Representation of the People Act 1832 broadened the franchise’s property qualification in the counties, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers. This effectively destroyed the UK Whig party bringing in the liberals.
The franchise was broadened further by the 1867 reform act. In 1911 parliament act effectively abolished the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation. And in 1918 the UK parliament enfranchised all men and women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications and in 1928 the vote was given to all women. The effect of these changes was to take power from that of the 1830s where it was controlled by a few Lords and very upper class MPs toward one where the working class labour party won a majority of all MP seats 1945. It was no longer taking a century or more for technology changes to have an impact.
How did people without any formal power through the UK constitution come to power? The answer, is that as communicating views to other people and the public in general, became less and less expensive, that it became impossible to stop those who did not have power from demanding and finally getting it. There was no literal revolution in the sense of guillotines chopping off kings heads as happened at the end of the first information revolution, but the changes in who had power were nether-the-less as dramatic as the first revolution.
It was the Sun Wot Won it – the rise of the press and media control
However, whilst the 1830-1920 revolutions were dramatic, there was a problem for ordinary people with the technologies. By and large the most effective communications were 1-to-many forms: printing, publishing, broadcasting. These were all very expensive technologies that only a few big organisations could afford. As a result, those who could afford such technologies like the press barons and media moguls, became incredibly powerful. Indeed, they would sometimes literally boast about their power to decide who got into power such and the notorious Sun headline after the 1992 UK election declaring that it had lied about and manipulated the news in order to ensure a victory for its own preferred party (who had no doubt bought that support by policy changes demanding by the Sun’s owners). This zenith in power of the UK press was linked to another information revolution of the 1980s when outdated “hot-metal” Linotype printing was replaced by computers which allowed journalists to input copy directly. The result had been to bring down the cost of printing newspapers and make them hugely profitable and hugely powerful.
But even if IBM never believed in mass computing, the computers that brought down the cost of publishing, didn’t remain the sole property of the big corporations for long. Soon, printing – by use of a personal computer and printer – started to come within the reach of most households. And from 2000 onwards mobile devices started to become readily available such that a majority of people now have access to the internet: both as readers and publishers through social media.
It is not possible to have an information revolution without affecting political power. And the result of the internet has been amongst many:
- To empower those in Britain who are against being in the EU
- To empower those in the “Arab spring” revolutions
- To enable Trump to come to power despite the most viciously hostile press campaign.
And we have undoubtedly not seen the end.
The Climate wars
How does this explain the climate wars? Below is a graph showing the interest in “Global warming” and the rise of internet usage.
Do you notice something familiar? If not, go back to look at the graph of witch trials and the efficiency of printing. I don’t think anyone that has been involved in trying to get the real climate science heard has any doubt that the last decade has been one of the nastiest campaigns by the “powers that be” in academia (“Science”) who have tried every trick in the book to force the public to accept their viewpoint that “the end is nigh”.
And what was their primary means of distributing their politicised “science”? The press and the Internet. And what was the sceptics primary means: the internet. It was undoubtedly a war created and fought on the internet. One between the old “establishment” of science in academia and those scientists who had formally been denied a voice who largely came from jobs in the private sector.
Information wars – they don’t say who is right – but they do tell us who will win.
The 16th century witch trials may have been triggered in the same way as the “climate wars” of the 21st century by a change of technology for communicating ideas, but I have no doubt that I could have as easily shown a graph of many other facets of religion, commerce or ideas, showing how the printing revolution triggered various “wars” between social groups. Likewise, the internet revolution has empowered new groups who were formally denied power. Their views and ideas now have far more clout leading to many social changes from leaving the EU to Trump. But that doesn’t mean those ideas are right. It is just possible that the old “Washington swamp” is a far better form of government than what Trump says he will deliver. Those in the establishment “swamp” will lose – but that doesn’t mean those outside the swamp are better at government. Likewise, it is possible that a society run by “our betters” in the EU would be a better one than one where ordinary people get to say who governs us. But the EU will lose and the ordinary people will win, because it is the ordinary people that have gained a voice and hence power through the technology of the internet.
But the best views don’t always come to power – witch finders can win (albeit temporarily), greens who want to end the western world gained control for a while, technology doesn’t chose “good” ideas, it just changes who gains a voice and through it gains political power.
Thus, being “right” is no indicator of success, but knowing who is winning and just as equally, who is losing power through the change in communication technology does allow a few good predictions:
- The UK is going to leave the EU. No matter what the “establishment” MPs might want, the simple fact is that the old establishment from which the MPs came is no longer in control of UK politics.
- Trump will not be the last “popular president” in the US. That does not mean all future “popular presidents” will share his “conservative” views, but I can predict with confidence that many more presidents which the press loath as much, or even more than Trump, will come to power.
- The climate “elite” will lose. They might think that having every single scientific body back their political outcomes …. but history shows that having power is not enough to stop those who gain a voice through new technology.
The example of Tommy Robinson
Tommy Robinson, according to all the laws of political power that used to govern who controlled our country, should be a non-entity. He is loathed by the press who constantly lie about him. He is loathed by most politicians – who happily spread the lies of the press. He had no political party to support him and the press and judges were constantly harassing him – and even the money-grabbing lawyers didn’t want to take his money.
But his latest video exposing the racism and homophobia of the BBC has, despite being banned by facebook and ruthlessly attacked, now been seen by over 700,000 people (It currently shows 679,000 – but it said almost the same number a few hours ago so it seems to me YouTube have stopped the counter!)
I find his rise to power fascinating for I am neither member of his social group nor that of the journalistic-swamp attacking him. So I am to some extent impartial.
Undoubtedly Tommy is very clever, he’s also getting a lot of support as shown by the increasing professionalism of his videos. But what this video above and the ~700,000 views in a few days highlights is that a person who comes from a social group that journalists like the BBC despise and call “Cannibals”** is now gaining massive support. The loathsome BBC have tried every trick in the book and a few more (Goebbels book of propaganda) and they have failed and they will continue to fail. The establishment have already got to facebook to ban the video (for what – exposing racist homophobic views of a BBC journalist – attempting to attack Tommy as racist and homophobic!)
Indeed, it seems to me, that the more those in the establishment like the BBC and parliament attack Tommy – the more he is becoming a symbol to those in the “Cannibal classes” of resistance against the establishment. Thus far from weakening him, each attack makes him stronger.
Only fate & hindsight that will tell us whether the change in society that is seeing those like Tommy rise to power was for good or bad, but it is inevitable. He or someone or some people like him, who represent those the BBC think of as “Cannibals” were going to gain power. And of course that will be against the howls of protest and vicious attacks by the present inhabitants of the establishment swamp … as their tentacles are cut loose from the levers of power.
We live in interesting times! As the huge political and social changes in recent years show, a major revolution is occurring before our very eyes. Given the increasing rate at which such revolutions have an impact, we should see a dramatic change within a few decades. What we don’t know, is the exact changes that will occur, nor whether the present incumbents of power will give it up peacefully or not. All we can really know for certain is that:
The revolution Cometh
** The above program shows a BBC Panorama “journalist” likening the Tommy Robinson class to Amazonian Cannibals.