Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Fiction of Michael Crichton

Celebrity is Not Expertise

A new Florida coast?I remember reading The Andromeda Strain as a teenager and finding it both engrossing and morbidly enjoyable. The original film (haven't seen the remake) was good too, and of course, Jurassic Park has become a modern Hollywood classic.

Thus it was disappointing for me to discover that Michael Crichton's enormous talent for fiction was not confined to his novels. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the damage done is magnified through celebrity and a media that shirks its most noble purpose if not its basic duty [pdf]. Instead of questioning what it is told it slavishly parrots discredited viewpoints, creating a faux equivalence between credentialed experts and peer-reviewed science on one hand, and a legion of poseurs, cranks and industry shills on the other. The result is to foster a "controversy" not to provide a forum for a debate on the merits, but out of laziness, naivete and simple commercialism:
Of course we must not forget that the bottom line with media is sales, not truth (or accuracy). Stories of scientific certainty are only interesting once, controversy is eternally newsworthy.
Until George Will's recent, error-filled and much-ridiculed column denying the reality of climate change, Crichton was the poster boy for the deniers. The points Crichton makes have been repeatedly debunked as they have been made many times before. Crichton merely reiterates shopworn mendacity.

The argument that climate change is unproven because there is no "scientific consensus" is both grossly inaccurate and betrays a fundamental ignorance about the scientific method. There are others who complain of the limitations and warn of the dangers of relying on scientific consensus, repeating endlessly that such things are "unproven" because the "consensus" is not 100%. Creationists casting doubt on evolution are of this ilk, as are the deniers of everything from moon landings to the Holocaust.

Crichton is correct in that "consensus" can have a political slant, and that the existence of a consensus on a scientific theory does not constitute proof of that theory. He says instead that proof simply
...requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science, consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.
This is a pretty pinched view especially when he and others smugly note that no climate change theory lends itself to reproducible results because the only global experiment we have available is the Earth we live on. Reproducible results must be done on different scales and in a different manner, using proxies and building on the edifice of broader science to extrapolate to the testing of such hypotheses. There's nothing wrong or manipulative in this; scientists perforce do similarly in astronomy, human genetics, and other areas where direct experimentation is impossible, impractical, or unethical.

Climate scientists do not dogmatically cling to theories; they are testing hypotheses about climate change, and as a result the theories are constantly evolving. The broad outlines, however, are quite clear and largely settled. Greenhouse gases are concentrating in the atmosphere with a rapidity and to an extent that are causing changes to the climate, and these changes include many very negative effects for humankind, including rising sea levels, desertification, famine, habitat destruction, and likely mass ecomigration. While experiments and data collection continue, and theories are always subject to revision according to observations, the core elements of climatology in this regard are well-established.

Crichton decries the politicization of climate change questions and attacks a misguided emphasis on consensus as the culprit. However, the few climate change deniers and the vanishingly small number of skeptical climatologists don't propose credible alternative hypotheses that withstand scientific scrutiny. The fact that they trot out discredited studies, quibble about the edges of the data, savage the same strawmen and finally complain about politics for their intellectual failure shows a clear lack of scientific honesty.

I mean really, now. How much proof is needed before we act?

It's not as if the implications of responding to the reality of climate change are so terrible. The costs are actually rather modest. As I've argued before, picking between the environment and the economy is a bogus choice. The only reason to resist doing something about climate change is the disruption to the status quo, and to the vested interests that profit from it, particularly the fossil industry, which must forever deny recognition of climate change as an external cost of their business. Reluctance to act is also psychological, stemming from the a priori belief that we can despoil the environment for temporal ends because it is our birthright as homo colossus.

Great scientists, incidentally, are not great because they "broke with consensus" but because they followed their observations and revised their hypotheses diligently wherever they led without regard for the preconceptions of themselves or others. Often this did put them in a lonely place against the orthodoxy of the times. Right now, the brave adherence to wherever the facts lead is not the province of the deniers but of those warning of the impending and irreversible effects of climate change. The orthodoxy to be overcome is not the fact that the climate is changing but a contrary belief that we need do nothing as nature is cyclic, we needn't worry, and we can merrily go on changing nothing about our lives or ecohostile habits.

Nature has other ideas.

As a fellow alumnus, I regret that Crichton's evident erudition and relentless wrong-headedness reinforce the oft-told gibe: "you can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much." I loved most of your fiction, Michael Crichton. RIP.

Originally posted on the Hydrovolts blog 3/7/09. Reposted here with minor spelling, grammatical and formatting edits.

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