Dr No first came across Stanley Milgram’s now infamous but fascinating obedience to authority experiments as a disobedient undergraduate keen to understand why so many of his fellow students seemed willing to toe the line to authority, even when authority had got things wrong. The Great Secret, it turned out, was for authority to dress things up as being for the greater good, add some cuckoo science, and ideally put the public facing authoritarians in uniform. Faced with this diabolic trident, ‘normal’ — Dr No uses quotes because one of the criticism’s of Milgram’s work was that his sample was small and in no way representative — Americans would, despite most showing evident anguish, and even great distress, and occasionally infantile giggling, administer what they believed to be dangerous electric shocks to fellow citizens, because they wanted to do the right thing.

A few days ago, re-reading, as one does, Clive James’ superb television criticism, Dr No came across a review of Women of Courage, from 1980 about Sigrid Lund, a Norwegian pacifist, who saved Jewish children from the Nazis and got them billeted with Norwegian families. When Norway got invaded by the Germans, one of the host families turned out to be Nazi. With great regret — they had grown to love the child — the family turned their child over to the Gestapo, because they wanted to do the right thing. The child died in Auschwitz.

The unavoidable conclusion is that many humans are programmed to obey authority, even when obeying causes harm, and all the more so if the orders to be obeyed are dressed up as being for the greater good, backed by science of a sort, and preferably delivered by strong men in uniform. At last weekend’s press conference, when Boris Johnson announced the second lockdown, two of the dressing up tactics were very much in evidence — the greater good (protect the NHS/save lives) and science of a sort — even if the dressing up itself (men in suits) was lamentably dull. It would just have been so much more complete if Johnson had come on in a Field Marshal’s attire, but presumably the short notice and weekend timing put paid to popping round to Shaftesbury Avenue. Even without the costumes, the public by and large lapped it up. A snap YouGov poll found that 43% of those polled strongly supported, and 30% somewhat supported the new lockdown, meaning almost three out of four of those polled welcomed the lockdown, while another poll found 42% of respondents believed the new rules were about right, with another 30% saying they didn’t go far enough.

Now, let us be in no doubt about things. The ‘science’ behind the so called scenarios — a highly questionable use of semantics to provide an escape hatch when the mountainous sombreros turn out to be flat cap molehills — has now been shown to be both out of date and exaggerated. We still have no evidence that hard lockdowns work to reduce spread better than soft lockdowns, apart from ‘it’s obvious, innit’, and some evidence they don’t work (see posts passim). But we do have clear evidence that hard lockdowns do harm. Each and every individual who obeys the lockdown is directly causing harm, through reduced social intercourse, and reduced economic activity. Behind those academic abstractions, there are individuals whose mental health will suffer, individuals whose livelihoods will be destroyed. Let us be in no doubt: each and every individual who obeys the lockdown is akin to the subjects in Milgram’s experiments, and Lund’s Nazi family who handed their child over to the Gestapo. The process is identical: obedience to authority, to do the right thing by authority, even when so doing clearly causes harm.

The hard question is what causes people to abandon their moral and critical faculties, to do the ‘right thing’ when it is clearly the wrong thing? There are no easy answers to this, and those that suggest themselves are unpalatable, because they suggest ‘doing the right thing’ is self-serving, rather than altruistic. There is self advancement: the naturally subservient craves the pat on the back from his superior for doing the right thing. There is herd mentality, safety in numbers, even when the herd then tramples underfoot the weak and the vulnerable, and the even more unpalatable sense of moral superiority over others gained by belonging to the right group, the in-crowd, the we are better than you party.

When we look closely at these possible explanations, we can see two threads running through them. Both are abandonments. The first is the abandonment of personal responsibility. The second is if possible even more troubling: the abandonment of truth, to become what Scott peck called the People of the Lie. The abandonments are related, both because when we abandon truth, we abandon a personal responsibility, to truth, and because personal responsibility is a universal truth, and when we abandon it, we abandon truth.

Scott Peck’s not exactly satisfactory solution to dealing with the People of the Lie is part psychotherapy, part religion, and a very self-sacrificial Christian form of religion at that. Dr No is much more sanguine, accepting that he alone is not going to crack a problem that dogged bedevilled and destroyed humanity throughout its history. Instead, he regularly reminds himself of, and acts on, the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke that forms part of the masthead to the first incarnation of Bad Medicine by Dr No: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.   

This article has 12 comments

  1. Tish Farrell Reply

    Between 20 Oct – 30 October, 3 Conservative MPS and one Unionist have lodged questions to the Sec. State for Health requesting his estimates for the number of false positives from the PCR tests. Answers come there none (link tidying required, Dr. No – done!).

    And here are the 34 Conservative MPS – the good men and women who stood up yesterday for the people, the nation, truth and justice. Hats off to them (and I was always a Labour voter/now ex party member):

    Adam Afriyie, Steve Baker (teller), Peter Bone, Sir Graham Brady, Steve Brine, Sir Christopher Chope, Philip Davies, Jonathan Djanogly, Jackie Doyle-Price, Richard Drax, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Marcus Fysh, Chris Green, James Grundy, Mark Harper, Gordon Henderson, Philip Hollobone (teller), David Jones, Tim Loughton, Craig Mackinlay, Stephen McPartland, Esther McVey, Huw Merriman, Anne Marie Morris, Sir Mike Penning, John Redwood, Andrew Rosindell, Henry Smith, Sir Desmond Swayne, Sir Robert Syms, Derek Thomas, Sir Charles Walker, Craig Whittaker, William Wragg.

    List courtesy of Lockdown Sceptics where there is also news of barrister, Francis Hoar’s twitter feed – a list of questions put to the Sci and Technol Comte to ask Whitty and Vallance – but which have not been asked/answered, in particular the question why the PCR tests continue to be run at 45 cycles when this amplification is known to produce false positives: https://twitter.com/Francis_Hoar/status/1323664333839224833

  2. Tom Welsh Reply

    I suggest that the reasons for conformity are simpler and quite obvious, once you can get over your pride in being a human being – and as such uniquely clever and moral.

    All human beings are apes: indeed, Jared Diamond called us “The Third Chimpanzee”.

    We share the instincts of apes, and not very far below the surface either. Apes (apart from orang-utans, who are solitary) live in troops or families, and certain group behaviours are life and death for them. Perhaps most powerful of all is the need for a strong and decisive leader – followed closely by a need for group cohesion.

    Compared to those instincts, rational thinking is a very recent and superficial latecomer.

  3. dr-no Reply

    Tish – transcript of the STC hearing is also available (and video for those who prefer it).

    One interesting thing which one of the MPs picked up on is Vallance getting his scenarios and predictions mixed up… If he thinks they are interchangeable, then why shouldn’t Joe Public?

    Tom – I agree there is a lot of biology in it. What is so trying is that we can’t use language and reason to move ourselves on a bit. Have also capitalised Jared, hope that’s OK!

  4. dearieme Reply

    I wouldn’t hang much on Milgram: from The Times 28/08/2019 –

    “But a previously unpublished analysis suggests an alternative, simpler explanation: a lot of people guessed that the whole thing was a sham.

    The analysis, based on questions to the subjects afterwards, suggests that the efforts of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist, to convince people that they really were causing pain were less effective than he admitted. Not only did half of those involved doubt to some degree that they were administering a shock but the data also showed that their level of belief directly affected their behaviour.

    According to an analysis published in Social Psychology Quarterly, the more certain people were that the experiment was real, the lower the shock they gave. Tellingly, most of those who were convinced that they were torturing someone defied orders and quit the experiment. Far from being monsters, they chose the moral course of action.”

    The article goes on to suggest a Covid-relevant conclusion:

    “If there were a moral to the Milgram experiment then, it may be less about people’s capacity for inhumanity than about scientists’ capacity for self-delusion in the cause of a pet theory.”

  5. dr-no Reply

    dearieme – There have certainly been many attempts to debunk Milgram’s experiments over the years. Some of these attempts may have been motivated by repugnance, partly at the experiments/experimenters themselves, and partly at the idea that people are inherently prepared to torture others in pursuit of a scientific goal. It is a difficult matter to resolve: the experiemnts were replicated on other settings, but overall Milgram was not his own best friend: his records were patchy, and I think I am right in saying there have been suggestions they may have been doctored/tampered with in some ways. Nonetheless, as you very rightly say, the article’s conclusion about scientists’ capacity for self-delusion in the cause of a pet theory rings as loud over covid as it has ever done.

    One interesting and rather convoluted aspect is Milgram told the subjects that the ‘learners’ would not suffer any long term harm – presumably a sort of cruel to be kind/spare the rod and spoil the child sort of message. But the convolution is that actually it was (more than) true – the ‘learners’ didn’t suffer one bit. This reminds me of the double blind trial of dental analgesia in which the blinded drug administrators knowledge of what they might be administering to the patient somehow got transmitted to the patient, and influenced the placebo effect. The report was only a letter to The Lancet, and is behind the Lancet’s paywall, but it has kindly been published online. It makes for intriguing reading. The key thing is the chart, which includes only patients who received the placebo.

    Another big problem with Milgram’s experiments briefly touched on in the post is the sample, and how representative it is . It was made up from self selected (via an ad) middle aged urban American males. Even the briefest look at America today (as we wait for the election result) reminds us that America is both weird and certainly not internally homogeneous, let alone representative of other peoples.

    My own hunch is the Milgram experiments contain a kernel of truth, even if the methodology and reporting were flawed, and that in many people the veneer of civilisation is wafer thin. One thought I had this morning listening to the Today Programme on test and tits up was the dissonance between three quarters of people being pro lockdown 2 and the large percentage (40%?) of people who actively resist being contacted by test and tits up, presumably on the grounds they don’t want to suffer the inconvenience of real lockdown ie self-isolation, or the severe penalties if they don’t comply. In other words, people will comply/support compliance so long as it is others who suffer, but if they themselves are to be inconvenienced, then selfishness kicks in.

  6. Annie Davenport Turner Reply

    ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’

    Confirmed by George Bernard Shaw, when he said, ‘2% of people think, 3% of people think they think, and 95% of people would rather die than think’.
    He also said, ‘Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week’.

    After forty years of attempting to make a living out of educating people to fundamentally think in order to make present and conscious choices over stale and subconscious patterning (and thus find
    their life to run a lot more smoothly), and to discover that this capacity is available to them at all times, I am, in 2020’s dreary detail, witnessing why it’s been so hard to ‘sell the product’. I am finding, with uncomfortable familiarity, the ‘people’ of 2020 to still only be occasional ‘persons’.

    However, this time is also waking up the most unexpected, so there is yet hope for our world; a world which will suffer dreadfully if allowed to run on autopilot. We must keep going, nudging person by person. Blogs like this, Dr No, help enormously – thank you.

  7. Tish Farrell Reply

    Thank you, Dr. No for Sci & Tech committee proceedings. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read every word, but a quick dip reveals circular arguments and chopped logic – and these men have scientific training! Heaven help us.

    An especially startling admission at Q1444 from Vallance: ‘We cannot deal with NHS capacity. I do not have insight into NHS capacity.’ What in blazes does he actually know! Nothing but modelling fantasies it would seem.

    When Graham Stringer challenges the profs on their scare-mongering graph and stats at Q1438, Vallance says it was ‘a scenario of a couple of weeks ago based on an assumption to try and get a new reasonable worst-case scenario’ and so on the basis of ‘scenario’, ‘assumption’ and ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ which they had ‘to try and get’ presumably because it did not immediately reveal itself in actual data (which they don’t have re NHS capacity) the nation is locked down.

    At 1438 Whitty witters on about case increase getting higher in the south-west (actual locations conveniently unspecified) than in the north, but now we have Cornish health care worker Shelley Tasker (Lockdown Sceptics and Daily Mail) filmed outside Truro cathedral simultaneously resigning and whistle blowing, stating that in 3 hospitals at the end of October there were 3 in-patients apparently with Covid 19, and the overall death rate to that date was 76. She also states that flu and covid cases are being conflated. The Mail has the video and I’ve a screen shot of these figures but it’s not possible to verify the source, though it looks a typical NHS doc. Even so, it warrants transparent investigation.

    The very many responses to the Shelley Tasker video on Facebook were mostly very supportive, which at least shows that some people are waking up.

  8. Tish Farrell Reply

    I know you’ve well covered the PCR test, Dr. No, but the topic can’t be aired too often, can it? And also in relation to your post and of good men doing nothing. Here’s one man who did do something and spoke out and so paid the price by being sacked. Anyway this is a good summary of the uses and limitations of the PCR test by Dr Pascal Sacre, formerly ICU doctor Charleroi Hospital, Belgium:

    You can read about his sacking at The Liberty Beacon 26 October.

  9. dearieme Reply

    Thank you, Tish. I noted “The probability of culturing the virus drops to 8% in samples with Ct levels above 35.”

    Do I understand correctly? If you use Ct > 35 you have a less than 10% chance of culturing the virus in the lab, the conclusive proof that the patient is infected and potentially infective.

    So Lord alone knows how many false positives are being identified based on use of excessive Ct. Then there are all the other possible causes of false positives.

    “Test, test, test” cried the WHO – just another panacea.

  10. Shawn Gibson Reply

    I was shown an email today from a neighbouring practice. It was an internal diktat issued to all their staff which required them all to wear face masks at all times, even when in a room on their own, and even whilst eating! A video was even provided to explain how this can be done (remove mask, take bite, replace mask, chew – not a word of a lie). This was all prefaced by a statement that this was based on ‘guidelines beyond our control’.

    I was saying only today that I’ve been most saddened through all this at how people who I would have thought entirely reasonable have willingly gone along with things that they know are very far from reasonable.

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