Let me preface the following installment with this - I met Michael Crichton only once, when we were on a television program together. He seemed a thoroughly nice fellow and my impression was of someone who cared sincerely about human success in a dangerous era.
Moreover, as you may read in other essays, I have no problem with people writing dire warning stories, about potential failure modes, or ways that technology might go awry. Indeed, the highest form of science fiction is arguably the self preventing prophecy, which causes enough thoughtful discussion that a particular worst-path is avoided. Best example? Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, though one could make similar cases for The China Syndrome, Soylent Green, and Silent Spring.
Certainly, if we ever do build robot or dinosaur theme parks, I am sure MC will get credit for warning us not to do it in the stupidest imaginable way.
But none of this has anything to do with my key point here, which concerns the bitter war for survival that modernism must now fight against enemies on all sides - romantics who cannot bear the fundamental assumptions of the Enlightenment. Especially that openness, pragmatism, accountability and rising human maturity may make us worthy - using good will and our own skilled hands - to remake a better world.
Moreover, while I respect the storytelling skills and breadth of interests shown by Michael Crichton... much as I respect the intellect and honesty of the late JRR Tolkien... there is simply no question which side of this struggle they both consistently chose.
Onward to part 14, taking up where we left off....
14: The agenda of the new-right does not want interference from Nobel-winning boffins...
If criticism is the only known antidote to error, that means we are certainly behooved to listen when intelligent and articulate critics like Michael Crichton - or his left-wing, postmodernist counterparts - assail what may be faulty or premature conclusions, accepted too readily by “consensus science.” (See Michael Crichton's The Case for Skepticism on Global Warming, also in his fiction, State of Fear.
The beauty and magic of criticism is that it can be right at the level of details, even if the overall argument is inane.
For example, I have elsewhere said things similar to what Crichton says about the excessively dramatic environmental jeremiads of Paul Ehrlich and Carl Sagan who, for example, cut corners and did inaccurate science while predicting imminent mass starvation and/or nuclear winter by the century’s turn. (Other examples chosen by Crichton are singled-out unfairly.)
(For more on achieving a balanced and vigorously pragmatic view toward environmental crises, see: My review of Jared Diamond's Collapse and my review of Greg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better Why People Feel Worse. Or, of course, my novel Earth.)
But while pot-shotting easy targets, Crichton makes no effort to actually do what he recommends -- engage in the dispassionate and careful scientific work of proving his own case. For example, he is rich enough to fund a panel of neutral experts to statistically appraise how many politically tendentious or biased studies there are, compared to the surrounding sea-tide of accumulating human knowledge that is the general process of worldwide science. Or whether the biases of left and right counterbalance in some reasonably pragmatic corrective process.
He might even have suggested methods of appraisal that would catch sophistries perpetrated by paid-off scientists of both the left and right. Many such methods have been contemplated, for example "science courts" that would expose controversial notions to harsh criticism and cautiously evaluate their credibility. Elsewhere (Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict for Society's Benefit) I describe why this notion is unnecessary and potentially harmful. But Crichton should certainly have discussed a range of possible ways to fix the problem he describes. After all, he surficially claims to revere science, while bemoaning its fallen state.
Alas, he is not interested in such processes or potential solutions, especially any that would enhance the validity and influence of science in public affairs. In fact, by cherry-picking anecdotal bad-examples - and misquoting those sources that he does cite - he demonstrates that his real aim is to besmirch the entire vast community of science, doing quite-blatantly the very thing that he derides.
The political agenda is very clear, of course. With a vast and growing scientific consensus building over the issue of Climate Change, and letters appearing in the press signed by scores of Nobel Prize winners, the deniers of global warming and other environmental threats face a deepening credibility gap. They must discredit the very notion of "scientific consensus" at a basic level, so that - no matter how many respected experts sign on to a petition - they can be prevented from influencing policy.
One of the commentors on Part 13 put it this way: 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.
In effect, by disdaining "consensus science", and offering no alternative, this branch of an obstinate aristocratic clade is - through Crichton - telling civilization's finest minds to return to their labs and tend their own business. As "boffins" they should stick to test tubes and leave policy to whichever self-chosen elite of aristocrats, politicos and/or philosopher kings happens to sit at the pinnacle of government and finance.
But then, look at Crichton’s novels, most of which follow a startlingly consistent plot outline.
First, a gosh-wow technological breakthrough is pursued by some cryptic entity (government agency, corporate lab, mad scientist or, lately, eco-fanatics) in total secrecy, evading the corrective effects of criticism. Errors are made due to a combination of hubris, profound stupidity, overweening pride and the utter absence of oversight by an obtuse civilization. And then (of course) hubris is compounded by more hubris. These errors very nearly lead to calamity while a solitary goodguy demigod berates the team efforts and the entire ignoramus culture that brought us to the brink.
Alas, not one of these lecturing heroes ever mentions the one corrective prescription that might actually work - general openness. The way we have often managed to get so many advances without hubristic calamities. (The almost perfect correlation between secrecy and catastrophe is a major point in The Transparent Society.)
Amid all the lectures in each Crichton novel, the plot - punctuated by gruesome deaths - does often build a lovely, reckless and heartpounding pace, hurtling toward a precipice of man-wrought doom...
...whereupon (more often than not) a miraculous salvation not only nullifies the error but then puts everything and everybody (except the dead) back where they came from, restoring a comfortable (but worried) status quo.
Try watching Jurassic Park again. Then murmur to both the hubristic strawman of a Disney-mogul and the smarmy-lectury-romantic mathematician -- "Duh... let's start out by making only herbivores!" Crichton’s dire warnings about misused science would go away in nearly every novel, but for an assumption of venal stupidity compounded by unnecessary (if convenient) secrecy.
Let there be no mistake, this plot outline is not modernist. It is romantic at every level that I describe elsewhere. Despite Crichton’s speech before a meeting of the AAAS , claiming “I am not anti-science!” -- he most definitely is. You can see it clearly in the following statement from his lecture at Caltech.
“In recent years, much has been said about the post modernist claims about science to the effect that science is just another form of raw power, tricked out in special claims for truth seeking and objectivity that really have no basis in fact. Science, we are told, is no better than any other undertaking. These ideas anger many scientists, and they anger me. But recent events have made me wonder if they are correct. “
Of course he does. As I alluded earlier, every foe of the Enlightenment must eventually converge on the same destination.
No specific scientific error is really at issue, since those can be fixed with tools of science, especially open and reciprocal accountability. No, the deep agenda and aim is to generally discredit the smartest members of our civilization, so that nothing they say can be used against other elites who have decidedly LESS respect for objective evidence than scientists do.
...Next: It ain't just the right-wing. Margaret Atwood and lefty postmodernists wage their own war against modernism....