Cold Lonely Puritans

 or reckless hedonists?

I’ve been listening to Ian Dunt and Dorian Lynskey talking about climate change denial on one of their two-part Origin Story podcasts[i]

and would enjoin you to do likewise. The subject is very interesting in its own right and Ian and Dorian do a splendid job of examining its history and background; but I want to pick out a particular thread from their observations.

Ian and Dorian rightly point out that oil money has played a big role in funding all kinds of utterly cynical mendacity in this field. What caught my attention more, however, was their observation that one of the reasons that climate-change denial gains the purchase it does, among all sorts of people with no particular vested interests, is that those warning of the dangers of climate-change come across as puritans who wish to stop us all having a good time. The denialists, on the other hand, tell us we can happily throw all caution to the wind and continue enjoying ourselves.

One can see why that can be a popular message.

But then I remembered some other things I have been reading over the last few days ….

In “In defence of Ozempic (Why the weight-sadists hate the new drug)”[ii]

David Aaronovitch notes that

… if I’ve noticed anything beyond the initial “miracle drug” hype that greeted injectable semaglutide’s arrival, it’s the obvious ambivalence of many of our fellow citizens towards the idea that losing weight should be in any way made easy.

And hot on the heels of that, came an article by Stuart Ritchie on “Why you can ignore the WHO claims that Diet Coke sweetener is a cancer risk”[iii]

in which he confronts the media glee, over claims that aspartame may cause cancer, with some facts and reasoned analysis.

What unites David’s and Stuart’s pieces (in my mind at least) is that they relate (in different ways) to a popular strand of thinking which insists that anything that makes life easier or better or more pleasant, without any obvious costs, must have some hidden dangers or drawbacks; or, at best, is a form of cheating.

So here (cf the context which Ian and Dorian consider above) we seem to have an example whereby the puritanical is also strangely popular.

Of course, one thing that ties the anti-puritans and the puritans together in these examples is an overarching belief that the universe is governed by the same principles that dictate their own thinking. Versions of this belief are extremely common, but extremely misguided (as I tried to illustrate here). The facts of climate science or drugs or nutrients are whatever they are – something to be discovered by scientific enquiry. The universe simply does not care about our moral or ideological commitments or arrange itself to fit in with them.

And the kinds of puritanism and anti-puritanism described (under a belief that the universe is structured in accordance with one’s own prejudices) are often found in the same individual. Melanie Phillips (climate change denialist, purveyor of all kinds of nonsense about recreational drugs …. and anti-vaxxer to boot)[iv] springs to mind here.

So now I confess to being puzzled.

I think we have demonstrated that both puritanism and anti-puritanism can be popular causes with the same group of individuals, or even within the head of the same individual. But I struggle to make sense of this.

How can the madding crown be full of self denialists and equally full of profligates?[v]

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