Friday, February 18, 2005

Modernism Part 13: Michael Crichton vs Science

Thanks for the comments. What a small but intelligent - and skeptically (!) interesting - group.

Now onward...

A CASE STUDY OF ANTI-MODERNISTS: Michael Crichton 
and Margaret Atwood:
The far-left and far-right, united vs modern science

In the last section I discussed a schism within speculative fiction, a gulf between fantasy and science fiction . I suggested that it really isn't about magic vs. spaceships. Rather, it is much more about whether or not the author believes that progress - however unlikely - is possible.

Ah, but not everybody visits the "science fiction and fantasy" section of the local book store. So shall I illustrate this divide by shining light outside the genre ghetto? At writers who are vastly more famous than I (a miserable sci fi scribbler) ever will be.

Let me choose two authors who have gone to sometimes frantic lengths in order not to let their books be labeled science fiction. Two "mainstream" writers who engage in relentless, passionate polemic, both on the pages of their novels and in public life, using fantastic fictional extrapolations to preach about the real world.

One of them sermonizes from the "left" and the other from the "right". And yet, their boiled-down messages are strikingly similar. Both authors express white-hot loathing of the modernist agenda, as well as any thought of human-wrought improvability.

The Andromeda StrainIn January 2003, Michael Crichton, author of famous book/movies ranging from The Andromeda Strain to Jurassic Park visited Caltech, one of the world’s pinnacle scientific institutions - (and my alma mater) - to deliver a speech deriding the condition of modern science.

In “Aliens Cause Global Warming” the author of WestWorld and Timeline proceeded to lay out what has become his standard address -- an indictment against the credibility of researchers who spread scientific “myths and superstitions.” His favorite example is the widespread consensus among a large majority of prestigious working scientists that we should be worried about environmental degradation and global climate change.

“In my lifetime, science has largely fulfilled its promise. Science has been the great intellectual adventure of our age, and a great hope for our troubled and restless world. But I did not expect science merely to extend lifespan, feed the hungry, cure disease, and shrink the world with jets and cell phones. I also expected science to banish the evils of human thought---prejudice and superstition, irrational beliefs and false fears. I expected science to be, in Carl Sagan's memorable phrase, "a candle in a demon haunted world." And here, I am not so pleased with the impact of science. Rather than serving as a cleansing force, science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity. Some of the demons that haunt our world in recent years are invented by scientists. The world has not benefitted from permitting these demons to escape free. “

DrakeEquationCrichton goes on also to berate astronomers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project for foisting upon a gullible public the so-called “Drake Equation” -- a way of making back-of-the-envelope estimates about the possible number of detectable, technology-using civilizations in our galaxy.

“This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated.”

In fact, I quite agree with Crichton about the Drake Equation, having criticized it extensively elsewhere. But where I see it as a flawed but harmless bit of speculative fluff, with some fine pedagogical uses, Crichton portrays the vagueness of this “equation” as some kind of scientific Original Sin. Without pointing to a single way that the Drake Equation has actually harmed science, Crichton seems to be saying that scientists can never let their hair down, have a couple of beers and indulge in some fun, arm-waving conjecture.

Of course, this is very odd, since Michael Crichton made his living by performing entertaining, science-fictional gedankenexperiments. True, his novels are properly labeled as novels and the Drake Equation has too-often been treated with more reverence than a what-if thought experiment deserves. Still, Crichton’s double standard is showing.

state-of-fearCrichton’s examples of bad science range from second-hand smoke to Nuclear Winter and world deforestation. Since all of his examples are chosen from a list of enemies-of-the-right, it might have been honest to avow his political agenda openly at the start. His core argument could be re-stated: that science in general has been polluted, even taken-over, by malignant memes of the left.

(For more on Crichton and climate change: See: Real Climate: Michael Crichton's State of Confusion  and Real Climate Part II: Return of Science.)

Ironically, left-wing activists would gladly compile an equally lengthy list of erroneous or biased ‘scientific studies’ that have leaned the other way, at behest of corporate or aristocratic or neoconservative interests.

If you try, it’s trivial to pick and choose anecdotes and examples of dogma-driven excess, from any perspective. Given what may be at stake -- either billions of dollars or else a perceived world-in-peril -- it would be surprising if human subjectivity and bias did not sometimes bias outcomes.

This is, in fact the critical discovery of science. That we often perceive what we expect or want to perceive, often at variance with what is objectively true. The Cro Magnon genius of trumping objective evidence with subjective belief. The original and only true form of magic.

How has science dealt with this quandary? By encouraging open enquiry and vigorous reciprocal accountability. And by enticing younger researchers to take risks and challenge portions of the edifice that may be weak, with substantial status awaiting those who do succeed in toppling a paradigm, some time.

I have generalized this with a catchy acronym-aphorism - CITOKATE ... or... Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error. A practicing scientist knows this, in his or her bones, even as the Cro Magnon ego inevitably tugs in the other direction, murmuring to each of us that we are 100% correct and that critics are all vile fools. Yes, that tug is overwhelming. Which makes even the partial success of scientific training - at making some egotists welcome criticism - all the more wondrous, almost a miracle.

200px-MichaelCrighton_TimelineThe lesson for everyday life? If none of us are likely to catch our own mistakes, we can hope that others will catch them for us. And yes, even when eagerly rebellious, snotty graduate students do the catching. (Even Nobelists relearn this lesson, the hard way. There is no privileged safety from criticism, in science, though some Cro Magnon professors and laureates certainly do try.)

...on to Part 14 with more about Crichton... and then Atwood!...


David Brin
Twitter                Facebook

16 comments:

Michael said...

Hmmm... Since no one is using this beautiful empty space for anything constructive I'll just say that I love your acronyms. If only I could drop them in casual conversation without looking like a complete weirdo. :)

Mabus said...

I have to say I'm embarrassed for Crichton....

I've always seen Crichton's work not as anti-science but as a corrective against the occasional arrogant scientist who assumes too much for himself. (Someone who, presumably, hasn't had any graduate students in a while.) Such characters appear in plenty of other fiction (including Earth, if I remember correctly); Crichton has merely made them his stock-in-trade. But when I looked over his most recent work I realized that either I had been wrong, or Crichton has been pounding the same drum too long.

Even so, I'm reluctant to dismiss Crichton's work too readily. I see it as one of those self-preventing prophecies. That we can develop the wisdom to use our discoveries and inventions wisely doesn't mean we always do so.

Sean from DocintheBox said...

I think Mr. Crichton plays on the psyche of modern culture. His novels are adventure storys that are easy for directors to read. Reading to deeply into his work is just playing into the game of getting him more attention. All of his work is basicily for entertainment value for the masses but he does seem to jump on the badwagon as far as pumping them out at the proper time but since his early work he’s lost his vision and spark. Everything feels plastic.

Anders Brink said...

Both mabus and sead are right:
In Jurassic Park, Crichton portrays
scientists as arrogant. But now
that environmental concerns have risen
to the fore, Crichton turns around
and criticises environmentalists.

However, Dr Brin is correct that
Crichton has mounted the wrong horse
this time. There is much that we have to do to reverse or cope with
environmental damage. If the masses
do not support this cause, then it is lost. In his book "State of Fear", Crichton does not help this cause at all. I only hope that
the people who read it will remember that he is merely writing fiction, for entertainment!

Willey Nelson said...

So how far would you go? A question we all ask ourselves. After making money with his works, Crichton has a name we all know. Making the money he is making, having the name he has, ask yourself the question. How far will you go to be able to sell your name on work that doesn't have the same magic anymore. I haven't read State of Fear yet, but Timeline didn't have the same stuff as Jurassic Park. I think the answer to that question for everyone has alot of say in this discussion. On a side note I like the transition from the last post into this one, still a tight article.

Rick Aucoin said...

I've long felt that Mr. Crichton was all but a Luddite. Every story I've seen from him seems based on the premise that science was uncovering things "man was not meant to know" and that terrible consequences (for individuals or whole societies) follow due to this hubris.

Mr. Brin I'm not a fan of your fiction (though I'm an avid SF reader) but I must say I am a fan of your non-fiction work.

Anonymous said...

I utterly despise Crichton's latest crusade, and think he's deluded at best and cynical and dishonest at worst.

But I don't see don't see how his indignant sore-head skepticism leads to this statement:

"Both authors express white-hot loathing of the modernist agenda, as well as any thought of human-wrought improvability."

Where in this current crusade of his does Crichton attack the idea of progress, or modernism? As Rick points out, his past works suggest that he's darn near a Luddite. But for this current rant he's donning the mantle of scientific integrity, railing against percieved bias. It's an utterly hypocritical stance, mind you, but it's not like he's advocating Creationism or suggesting that gravity is a social construct. It would be easier to dismiss his rant if he were.

Part of me is hoping that Crichton will shortly reveal that State of Fear and his rubber-chicken circuit speeches on behalf of greenhouse denial industry were a stunt to prove how the media can be manipulated . . . that with a few distorted facts and the right tone of voice a large chunk of the populace will gleefully pull the wool over their eyes. I doubt that's the case, but one can hope.

I'm hoping this, because if he isn't kidding then it's a sign that our culture is sinking yet deeper into a mire of comfortable, politically useful delusion and ignorance.

Stefan

Greg Trocchia said...

I had read Crichton's speech before and have now re-read it thanks to the link above. Now, as then, I come away deeply ambivalent from reading it. On the one hand, the theme that in science data should trump ideology is one I heartily endorse and think worth preserving. That is a theme not dissimilar from the modernism that Dr. Brin advocates. In addition, I was also taken aback at the reaction to Bjorn Lomborg's book, which I thought over the top. Scientific American's response was another reminder of why I gave up subscribing to that publication after years of loyal readership. I also agree that the uncertainties in computer modeling, particularly when the phenomenon being modeled involves a complex relation among several independent variables, is sometimes given short shift when the subject of the model has important public policy implications.

That said, I come to the other hand. For one thing, Crichton does not seem to have read his Popper. The difference between the assertion of a scientific hypothesis and an article of faith is that the assertion is in principle falsifiable, it is not necessary that it be immediately, or even immanently, falsifiable. It is true that the true values of most of the variables in the Drake Equation (with the exception N, the number of stars in the Milky Way) are guesses, but that does not mean that they will always be guesses as our technology improves. SETI, of course, is only untestable so long as the results are negative and even if we grant that the Drake Equation is too uncertain to act as a justification that hardly seems a reason not to look. Looking for what may turn out to be the scientific equivalent of a left handed smoke shifter is not a thing unknown among experimentalists.

Second, I think Crichton is wrong about consensus. Crichton says: "Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way." I contend that this is exactly how scientists would speak IF the distance to the sun or the energy equivalent of a kg were being disputed by non-scientists with a political agenda. This is precisely what is happening with Darwinian Evolution, which biologists regard as being on as solid a footing as Relativity or Orbital Mechanics, and their response is to invoke consensus.

Third, it seems to me that the uncertainty about the effects of Global-scale environmental change suggests reason for caution. If your headlights can only penetrate so far into the fog, driving at full throttle seems imprudent. Panic, I agree, is not called for but surely caution is.

Finally, I am indignant that MICHAEL CRICHTON should be accusing anyone else of contorting science in the furtherance of scare-mongering. That is the height of chutzpah (for those unacquainted with the term, I quote one of my favorite buttons: "Hubris is stealing fire from the gods, Chutzpah is offering to sell it back to them"). As someone on the periphery of the Molecular Nanotechnology community, I can tell you that there was substantial concern that a movie based on Crichton's novel Prey (a book about a "grey-goo" accident, a scenario which the MNT community concluded was implausible well over a decade ago) would be our "China Syndrome". Nor is MNT the only area where Crichton contorts science beyond recognition in order to scare his readers/watchers, just look at the hash he made of Chaos Theory in "Jurassic Park" (happily, little of that made it into the movie). Attend to the log in your own eye, Dr. Crichton, before attending to your neighbor's splinter.

Nicq MacDonald said...

greg:

There was a discussion of Prey on the Extropy List a while back, shortly after it came out- as well as an interview which Crichton gave shortly after that, when he said that, contrary to what his book might suggest, he's actually a supporter of MNT- just, like the Foresight Institute, doesn't think that the possibility of danger should be glossed over.

I think it's rather extreme to call Crichton himself a "luddite"- based on his interviews, I don't think that's the case at all. I think it's more or less that he's a hack novelist who knows what sells... unfortunate as it might be...

Greg Trocchia said...

Nicq:

I did not accuse Chrichton of being a Luddite, I accused him of advancing the cause of the Luddites (without directly using the term). The distinction may sound subtle, but I contend that it makes Crichton even more culpable. To advance a position that you believe, however mistakenly, is something that I may argue with you about, but in the end I cannot fault you for. Advancing a position when you believe something very different (perhaps diametrically opposed), on the other hand, is opportunism at best and the rankest of hypocrisy at worst.

If Chrichton does in fact believe that MNT is a good thing over all and still chooses to create a scare story about a non-issue, grey-goo, I believe that he is betraying his readers. Because MNT is such an exotic topic, with lots of heavy scientific and technical content, and because most of his readers lack the technical and scientific knowledge to make an independent assessment, these readers are especially dependent upon him not to mislead them. This is not just a case of a SF author making up a bit of science or technology out of whole cloth, FTL for instance, to advance a plot. Here we are talking about something where grey-goo is central to the plot, without it there is no story. I believe that the flip side of the self-preventing prophecy that Dr. Brin talks about is that authors have an (unenforceable) duty to their readers not to cry "Wolf" when writing such stories.

The thing that really galls me about the whole situation is that there are REAL nightmares regarding MNT that cry out for a self-preventing prophecy treatment, the possibility of an unstable arms race turning into a nanotech "Guns of August" for the 21st Century looms largest and scariest among them. What makes matters far worse is that this isn't just an MNT thing, I am just using this to illustrate because it is a field that I am somewhat familiar with. The thing is that Chrichton is a serial offender doing the same thing in book after book to different fields. Then, after all of this, to get up at a place like Caltech purport to be the voice of reason is, to reiterate, the essence of chutzpah.

Anna Paradox said...

I am enjoying this discussion very much.

I had interesting reactions to CITOKATE. I'd like to spread the meme Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error quite widely. Too many minds closed against discussion is costing our civilization much of its strength and flexibility. But then, I thought, what if trying to spread that meme left ME wide open it criticism. Nothing new -- Brin talked about this impulse to put others under scrutiny while avoiding it yourself in Transparent Society. Nothing for it but to laugh at myself, face the fear and go on.

There is one other antidote to error, though -- testing against reality and failing. Although it may not always feel like it, criticism is the less harsh alternative.

So how do we go on? Have we other strategies to open the field to wider discussion?

It may help to recognize the positive impulses behind the philosophical stances we disagree with. Respecting your opponent as the "loyal opposition" -- whether you believe that particular individual is acting from positive motives or not -- may create an environment where all criticism has a better chance of being heard. Conservatism's positive impulse is to protect current ecomomic successes. Environmentalism's positive impulse is to leave resources for the future. Liberalism's positive impulse is to spread benefits to more people.

And post-modernism's positive impulse is to clear the field of basic assumptions that may not be working by questioning everything.

Oversimplifications and nothing new, again, of course.

Meanwhile, to advance CITOKATE with integrity, I hope to find time to add a comment feature to my own blog soon.

Anna Paradox said...

I am enjoying this discussion very much.

I had interesting reactions to CITOKATE. I'd like to spread the meme Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error quite widely. Too many minds closed against discussion is costing our civilization much of its strength and flexibility. But then, I thought, what if trying to spread that meme left ME wide open to criticism. Nothing new -- Brin talked about this impulse to put others under scrutiny while avoiding it yourself in Transparent Society. Nothing for it but to laugh at myself, face the fear and go on.

There is one other antidote to error, though -- testing against reality and failing. Although it may not always feel like it, criticism is the less harsh alternative.

So how do we go on? Have we other strategies to open the field to wider discussion?

It may help to recognize the positive impulses behind the philosophical stances we disagree with. Respecting your opponent as the "loyal opposition" -- whether you believe that particular individual is acting from positive motives or not -- may create an environment where all criticism has a better chance of being heard. Conservatism's positive impulse is to protect current ecomomic successes. Environmentalism's positive impulse is to leave resources for the future. Liberalism's positive impulse is to spread benefits to more people.

And post-modernism's positive impulse is to clear the field of basic assumptions that may not be working by questioning everything.

Oversimplifications and nothing new, again, of course.

Meanwhile, to advance CITOKATE with integrity, I hope to find time to add a comment feature to my own blog soon.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that you turn the whole debate into a political football. There must be a team, and they're trying to run down the field. Why does anyone have to be 'left' or 'right' ? Crichton has correctly pointed out that there are boogeymen in the closet with some of these ideas. He's on a soap box and he's trying to make a point. The point being there is a lot of "junk science" out there,
whatever the political motivations might be. Everyone tries to make a buck, 'peer review' and other forms of 'popular' science are erroneous. In a time where the media morgals shape thought, who can discern the fact from fiction?

Like in times of old, we use stories to teach people ideas and thoughts. Saying it's "just entertainment" is to ignore this fact. Hollywood creates stories, what do they teach? Crichton creates his story, I believe he is very open about what he teaches as espoused by his speech.

I don't see a double standard, Crichton claims to have a solid foundation for his story. Now, either he does or he doesn't. You have created the impression that being a novel, it is inherrently flawed. This has not been our tradition. SETI on the other hand, has very little going for it. Junk in scientific skin.

Anders Brink said...

SETI has little going for it, but we only knew this AFTER THE FACT, not BEFORE. What it was, was a FIRST LOOK. Imagine, if there were Martians, or Alien signals from Vega, and you didn't even bother to TAKE A LOOK.

SETI is one of humanity's LONG TERM projects.

To Anna,

I think the impulse to question everything is important. However,
WHAT to question, and HOW to question are equally important skills. I am not going to defend this. I'd like you to think about it.

Let me illustrate by criticizing CITOKATE. Are we sure that Criticism is the ONLY known antidote to error?
I can think of a few others - better knowledge for one thing. Or what if there is a genuine difference in worldview? But yet, in spite of this, I still generally endorse CITOKATE, because I believe David Brin's meme is undersold. That is one of the reasons I keep coming back! To check if he has refined his message. Believe it or not, the message bears repeating in a very different part of the world! (SF's reach is global, just as post-modernism is, do you realize that?)

Anonymous said...

Is criticism really the only antidote to error?

Well, it may be for people who care whether they're in error, or accept the possibility of being in error, and who perceive no conflict with their interests when admitting error. But most people are loath to admit that, even when it's public knowledge, or even just widely known, much less so when they will be losing out on something in the process.

The truth is, CITOKATE only works in geek circles like among scientists and academics, who are used to admitting error or at least receiving constructive criticism. So we like it. But criticism isn't really the antidote for, say, the Religious Right, or neo-Nazis, or thieves, or overt, defiant racists.

Test case: How can CITOKATE eliminate the demand that creationism be taught in public schools? It can't, because the people you'd need to convince don't give a damn whether they're wrong. They can't even process the idea of their actually being wrong.

By the way, big acronyms aren't as catchy as short full-word mottos. CITOKATE will never, ever catch on the way "Think Globally, Act Locally" did. Why? Most people just prefer mottos to acronyms. It's the nature of people, you know. Acronyms are less immediately decipherable, and more geekish.

That would be why CITOKATE's predecessor, IAAMOAC, never caught on beyond a few fanboys and fangirls.

Richard Simons said...

I can accept Michael Crichton's novels as SF but I am troubled that so many people assume the science in them is reasonably correct. To such people I point out that I've given an extract of one of his books to undergraduate students to see if they can find the five major blunders on the one page.