Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Modernism Part 14: more on Crichton vs science

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. 1984Moreover, 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...

state-of-fearIf 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.

Prey [Hardcover]-Michael CrichtonAlas, 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....


Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but think, on skimming State of Fear, how much it looked like The Thor Conspiracy, a schlock-fest about how the ozone hole is really caused by a secret nuclear missile test that was conducted in the sixties. Oh, and the CFC ban is really meant to starve people in developing nations by making refrigeration really expensive.

This gem was, for some peculiar reason, included on a shelf of "Christian books" with items like Left Behind despite having no discernable religious content. Perhaps Crichton's work belongs there too?

Silly Old Bear said...

I'm not sure I can add much to the discussion, but I wanted to just comment that I am enjoying these posts (and their comments) immensely.

NoOne said...

I'm in two minds about Crichton. On the one hand, the plots of all his novels foretell a "doom of the week" pertaining to some technological breakthrough---cloning as an obvious example. On the other, he is a good critic of postmodernists. Anyway, I went back and listened to Crichton's interview on Integral Naked which can be found here. (Unfortunately, you have to be a subscriber.) There's a two part interview entitled "At the dangerous edge of the knowledge quest." Quoting from the blurb on the website, "Crichton has often been read as a neo-Luddite: mess with nature, get your comeuppance. But his stance is much more subtle and complex, and, if anything, contra-Luddite. “The Luddite stance is not very useful in any way for today’s world.” Rather, we must do science (and hence “mess” with nature), but there is always danger at the edge of knowing, and the unintended consequences can be disastrous. As a character in Prey puts it, “Things never turn out the way you think they will….”" If I were to give him the benefit of doubt, then at his best, he's here to warn us from making boneheaded mistakes at the leading edge of science. At his worst, he's a purveyor of bad pulp tech. fiction. Also, on the website, In a similar vein, "Michael and Ken [interviewer] share a criticism of extreme postmodernism, anti-hierarchy notions, reality as merely or only constructed. They champion the need to check evidence as much as possible (including its interpretive moments, but not absolutizing interpretation as the extreme postmodernists do), and accordingly they voice an integral criticism of what Michael calls “the human tendency to one-sidedness.” My question to the others on this forum is, when Crichton says "Progress in technology and knowledge is a good in itself, and nature is a partner in that pursuit—but a partner that must be paid the utmost respect," do you believe him or do you think he has a right wing hidden agenda as David seems to think?

Anonymous said...

This entry -- particularly the last paragraph -- gets to the heart of the problem.

Crichton doesn't want to destroy science, he wants to neuter it . . . to make it non-threatening and compliant.

There's a great bit in Huxley's Brave New World where we see World Controller Mustapha Mond working through a pile of scientific papers, deciding which ones will be published and which will be supressed and have their authors sent into exile. He eventually reveals that he used to be a physicist, but -- when it was determined that the implications of his work would threaten the status quo -- was given a choice between continuing his research on an isolated island or giving it up and going into politics. The world state officially worshipped science and progress, but in reality they long ago embalmed it and kept it on a pedestal.

"It is the business of the future to be dangerous, and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties." -- Alfred North Whitehead


Anonymous said...

I've been following these columns and doing some reading - I don't have anything profound to add to this discussion, but I wanted to share some links I found that might be of interest: - rebuts Crichton's arguments, among other things.

Interview with Neal Stephenson, who appears to share the modernist views of Mr. Brin

Um, sorry for posting a competitor link, but you and he seem like natural allies. (FWIW, I like your writing style better ;-)

Anonymous said...


It's from the second to last page of the last chapter of _Science and the Modern World_, which Whitehead wrote in 1925.

My review on Amazon has the quote in context.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but relevant to the discussion of modernity and ideology:

There's a new article up at The New Republic online that discusses Conservative vs. Liberal economic policy, and how Conservatives and Liberals are not mirrors of each other- one is ideologically driven (libs) while the other is driven by the desire to experiment and research (conservatives). The author also makes the important distinction between true liberals and socialists, and between the climate of debate in the Clinton Administration vs. the climate of emotional absolutism of the Bush Administration. Worth checking out.

Your impression of Crichton is similiar to mine (though I think he's more of a hack). I also find it interesting that he had this discussion with Mr. Wilber, who is a very staunch environmentalist (and founder of EcoISP).

Humble Lurker:
Stephenson is always an interesting one to bring up politically. I consider his works as important as Orwell or Huxley, though I have yet to find a professor who agrees with me (or who has even heard of the man- though I do have yet to bring up the subject with our newest gov't prof, who is also a fan of Brin and has frequently made reference to Transparent Society)...

NoOne said...

Response to Nicq McDonaldWhen I listen to the Crichton interview on Integral Naked, I'm struck by the arrogance emanating from both Crichton and Wilber. [Others may not feel the same obviously, but this was my impression. Also, it is rather funny that Wilber writes about spirituality all the time and yet comes across as so arrogant.] Perhaps David has picked up on this arrogance.

Can you recommend a Neal Stephenson book to read? I cannot get through Cryptonomicon. Puts me to sleep each time I start reading it.

Anonymous said...

I have to just say "heh" to the New Republic's theory about conservative and liberal economics, (or at least nicq's synopsis of it, I'm not a subscriber) especially given the current leadership of the Republican party's devotion to tax cuts, but that's neither here nor there.

I'm not sure what to make of Crichton, most of his latest stuff I've seen that's made much of a public splash has been his silly, right-wing stuff like the anti-climate change stuff.

Which, honestly, I don't quite understand. A lot of the things that would reduce greenshouse emissions are just making stuff more effiecent, which seems to be a good thing. CF bulbs instead of normal light bulbs, better insulation and sensible building practices, distributed power from solar cells and stuff, better fuel efficency for cars, and upgrading the power plants and power grid. Things that'd not just reduce emissions, they'd make the power grid more stable and stronger and more distributed, and also result in us buying less oil. So they're good for the environment, good for the economy, and good for national security, since they'd make the power grid less of an attractive or devestating target for terrorists.

And yes, that would probably require government subsidies and expenditure, but so did building the whole power grid originally. Some things the government does well, some things the "free market" does well.

Anonymous said...


The point is that environmentally, those things may be good things, but
the market does not agree. For example, the Halogen bulb that I could buy at Walmart costs much more than a simple incandescent bulb. Thus the masses, being what they are, will choose the more wasteful incandescent bulb. Market forces doesn't work! You need a government to intervene to make us, as a whole, choose the better long term solution. If the government does not, then it just won't happen. I know libertarians don't like this, but this is the problem we are faced with.

Anonymous said...

anders, I agree with you, and not. Yes, the market's failing in this case, and this is an example of somewhere where government intervention would make the market more efficent. It's starting to slowly work, since you can actually buy the other bulbs at Wal-Mart now, because prices have been dropping dramatically over the past few years. The incadescent bulbs seem cheaper, but cost a lot more in energy usage and don't last as long, so are more expensive in the long run. The market, at least the way it's working right now, is good at short term, and not so good at long term. There's lots of emphasis on companies making new record profits every quarter, to keep the stock prices up. And CEOs usually have a lot of stock, so they often do whatever it takes to make stock prices go up now, rather than building more long term. part of the problem is the turnover with CEOs, who are usually around only a few years, then don't care what happens once they get out and cash in their stock. Which is, essentially, one of the arguments against term limits for elected offices.

But you're right, without some kind of outside encouragement, either from government or from rising energy prices or some kind of energy shock, the better bulbs and so on aren't going to be used as rapidly as they could and probably should be.

My main point though, was that this kind of stuff has more benefits than JUST the environmental ones, benefits that should appeal to the "Right" as well as the "Left".

Anonymous said...

AWK! In my article synopsis, I actually REVERSED what the article said- the Conservatives are ideologically driven, while Liberals (not to be confused with socialists!) are experimentally-driven!!! A mistype there, not a misreading... I posted the article because it seems to sum up something that Brin is trying desperately to get at...

David Brin said...

This week the Harris Poll found (surprise!) entrenched attitudes about gun control and tax cuts and religion, among those whocall themselves "conservative" or "right" vs "liberal" etc. And this is supposed to prove something? The poll seemed perfectly chosen to lob easy questions, selecting a few questions under which the old conservatism would safely be found compatible with the new conservatism. It deliberately avoided
glaring areas, of profound change, in which Barry Goldwater is spinning in his grave.

Here are a few I wish they had also asked.

"Do you feel the US should balance its books and erase our grandchildrens' debt before giving tax cuts to the rich?" (Cityfolk leaned heavily toward paying off debt and balancing budgets - those dang spendthrift liberals!)

"Do you believe in strict separation of church and state?" (Goldwater did.)

"Do you feel the US should be the world's policeman, enforcing its ideals on other nations?"

"Do you feel that increasing government secrecy is a sign of honesty and strength or does it encourage concealment of poor behavior?"

"Do you feel that professional military and intelligence officers should be protected from coercion or pressure from politicians?"

"If the nation's scientists nearly all agree that a trend may threaten our childrens' well-being, is the government obligated to accelerate research and development that may alleviate the problem?"

You could create an almost endless list of such questions...

... and others that show how desperately foolish and anti-modern the LEFT has become, as well. For example utter cluelessness about some of the reasons why liberals are so deeply resented in the countryside. One thing that would help a lot is if liberals were to go to rural folk and offer a compromise on environmental land-use regulations. A lot of the fire in the bellies of rural folk is about being told what to do with their own land by city folk. When the dems call a great big conference about this, I'll believe they are gearing up to win.

Finally, some of you have been discussing the role of govt regulation in adjusting the market's forces so that the market will then reward long term good decisions. Libertarian romantics hate this idea, but pragmatists see it as only natural - and then can debate endlessly over where and how to draw the lines. My libertarian instinct is to worry about excessive meddling by good-intentioned paternalists. But history shows that democrats have actually done more DE-regulating of major industries (trucking, banking, telecom, airlines etc) than the GOP has ever even proposed. Add this to Clinton's surpluses and you get a very odd picture. Showing once again that the LR axis sucks.

Oh, one more item.

If Crichton's allies were sincere, they would want the research budget for Climate Change studies INCREASED, instead of suppressing research. No action better shows the underlying agenda... along with the reversal of the 90s trend in lowering govt secrecy. (The number of secrets is now skyrocketing.)

Stupid Dem senators asked Condi NONE of the choice questions. e.g. "If you admit a big intelligence error was made re WMD, can you give us the names of CIA and other officials who dissented and were proved RIGHT? Can you show us how they have been rewarded, advanced and promoted for speaking up and for having been proved right?"

(Hint: all evidence shows that they have mostly been fired or squelched.)

Anonymous said...

Nicq: Ah, okay, that makes more sense. Though I'm sure you could probably find some liberal economists who're idealogially devoted to... I dunno, something, there's probably a few old communists around or something, but for the most part, liberals, from what I've seen, are less interested in how something gets done than that it gets done. This might again just be part of being out of power, but.

Like, I think deficits can be okay, if they're there for good reasons and aren't permanent. Like during a war or recession, or to build/rebuild infrastructure. Things that are either needed or pay themselves off. Just like taking out a loan to repair/upgrade your house.

But that's not what we have, Bush and his crew keep pushing for more tax cuts even when we're in the middle of two wars and the government's already in a deficit.

And relevant to Dr. Brin's post, I agree with the insincerity of Crichton's anti-global-warming allies (and on other issues too, but that's another point), and that the Senate botched Rice's confirmation hearings. The saddest spectacle during that whole thing was the Republicans who got up and started preaching about how "liberals hate minorities" because people questiond her competence.

Anonymous said...

Good points, once again. I was on talk show host and columnist Dennis Prager's website the other day, and I read a battery of questions titled "Are you a liberal?", which had to be most asinine list I'd ever seen. While there may have been five or six questions I could say "Yes" to with no reservations, most of them were flat-out distortions or only applied to a left-ideologue fringe that I wouldn't even dignify with the term liberal:

A few choice ones:
"It is good that trial lawyers and teachers unions are the two biggest contributors to the Democratic Party."

Yes, lawyers and teachers- the two professions that make liberal society WORK. Even if our legal system and educational system have problems, I don't think demonizing these unions and who they represent is the answer.

"A married couple should not have more of a right to adopt a child than two men or two women."

All things being equal, a couple consisting of a man and a woman should have more of a right than two men or two women- yet that doesn't mean that the latter options aren't better than one parent, or no parents at all. Or take this- who do you think would make the better parents- two poor teenagers of the opposite sex, or a couple of mature 30 something homosexual professionals who have decided they want to raise a child together? I know which one I'd pick.

(This also gets me on another rant- the bogus idea that just because you don't think something is completely right or completely wrong, that you're a "relativist". I don't think that a "gay marriage" is the moral equal of heterosexual marriage, but that doesn't mean I think it's morally wrong, and strikes me as morally far superior to homo or heterosexual promiscuity. I guess I see most moral issues this way- a sliding scale of value, rather than absolute right/wrong.)

Oh, this one is divine:

"The present high tax rates are good."

This is a loaded statement if I've ever heard one. The US has some of the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world- roughly on par with Japan. Given what we get for our money, I'd say we've got a pretty plum deal, even given some of the problems in the system.

All too often, I'm hearing liberal conflated with ridiculous positions or slippery-slope nihilist arguments that just don't hold any water.

As the article I linked to a few days ago pointed out, the Clinton administration had a serious economic debate- Reich vs. Rubin- and Rubin won. The Bush administration doesn't want to talk pragmatically. While Social Security reform is a daring idea, I'm afraid that it's just going to create another massive bureaucracy and spend $2 Tril we don't have on a problem that's being blown out of proportion (the social security "shortfall" is based on a 1.5% economic growth curve- when we've averaged 2.8% over the last century. And, suffice it to say, that if the economy is only growing fast enough to keep up with population growth (if that), the stock market isn't going to be going anywhere, which kind of puts a freeze on the whole motivation for privatization to begin with.)

Anonymous said...

I actually went out and signed up to the New Republic to get the article...something I don't do very often, since it usually means subscribing to periodicals I will never see again.

The article wasn't wrong, per se. Where we parted company was in seeing "increased freedom" as an ideological value rather than a pragmatic one. Freedom is a real, tangible benefit--and occasionally it can be increased, paradoxically, by stricter regulations, if some other party is creating its own practical restrictions. (Careful questioning reveals that even the religious right knows this; it seems to take a secular ideologue to deny it.)

Or to take the other side--economic efficiency is desirable, but it isn't an end in itself; one must ask the question, "Efficiency in doing what?" An inefficient war is certainly unjust, but an efficient one is not necessarily just.

That said, the current Republican leadership could proceed empirically to determine what conditions actually increase freedom, and it has not.