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.
In 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. “
Crichton 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.
Crichton’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.
The 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 BrinTwitter Facebook