Bloody Michael Crichton

Owing to a tragic scheduling error, his testimony before the senate came in time for the Gdn’s front page, which meant that my carefully crafted thumbsucking was thrown away in favour of a report from someone who had the vulgarity actually to be there. I don’t know what journalism is coming to. But I like the CCT, so it’s here. Note joke at the end stolen from Dr Baber.


Do you want to change the world like Buffy or like Dr Who? There are two ways that a science fiction writer can take his readers to another planet. Sometimes the journey there is an adventure in itself, and the passengers never for a moment forget that they are in space, or travelling back through time. Thus Dr Who, a series where the Tardis is the longest-lasting character. But in other stories, often the most frightening, the moment of transition is imperceptible. Everything appears normal and entirely credible, except that the world is stalked by monsters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was set in an almost wholly credible school that just happened to be surrounded by monsters, not all of them on the teaching staff.

Michael Crichton is a master of Buffy-type fiction. His alternate worlds are quite clearly ours — just with an oil change. In one of his early books, the story of Beowulf was retold as the adventures of an Arab traveller among the Vikings, and it is almost impossible to tell where the genuine ninth century travelogue ended, and the journey moved on to the fantasy world of monsters in the swamp. Similarly, the science of Jurassic Park was nonsense, but the background to it was entirely credible. The world is after all full of wicked and foolish millionaires.

It is still rather a shock to discover Crichton testifying on their behalf in front of the United States Senate, as he did yesterday. He is not himself a scientist, but he has written a best-selling novel in which the hero is a scientist from MIT who discovers that climate change is all a fraud. But a novelist is probably the best witness that Senator James Inhofe, the Republican Senator who has summoned him, will find. A 2004 survey (in the journal Science) of 900 peer-reviewed and published scientific papers on climate change failed to find a single one which went against the belief that man-made change is happening and is dangerous.

Against such a weight of opinion, Crichton has developed an original hypothesis. In a 2003 lecture, he announced: “I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.”

The last sentence sounds like a purely rhetorical flourish. In fact it is at the heart of all the denial of climate change from the US Senate to the Daily Mail; and it is something that we in the reality-based communities ought perhaps to take more seriously. The denial of climate change, like the denial of evolution, or the refusal to admit that HIV causes Aids, gains its political momentum from resentment and the belief that whatever happens the system is fixed against ordinary hard-working people and to the benefit of the elites. When, in 2003, Senator Inhofe called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, this is the feeling to which he appealed.

The genius of the modern conservative movement is that it has simultaneously benefited from this resentment and increased the unfairness that fuels it. But when poor people suspect that measures to diminish global warming will make them disproportionately poorer and more miserable, they are right.

But global warming won’t go away just because it’s unfair and cruel; and the only thing worse than the consequences of action to avert it are the consequences of inaction. This is something that everyone knows and which consequently can only be denied by a full scale assault on rationality. Here again Crichton stands ready to serve:

“Let’s be clear”, he has written: “The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, 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.”

But that’s the thing about predictions: by the time you can verify your results it is too late. If we take the Crichton position seriously, there is nothing whatever that science can tell us about the future; and his rhetoric sometimes approaches this conclusion: “Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?”

This is a question on which he might have some expertise — he did qualify as a doctor before turning to fiction. But it’s hard to see where this kid of radical scepticism ought to stop. As David Hume pointed out back in the eighteenth century, we have absolutely no logical or scientific reason to suppose that the sun will rise tomorrow and the overwhelming consensus in favour of the proposition that it will proves absolutely nothing. Why is this fact suppressed by the establishment? When will Senator Inhofe summon a witness to speak up for the true powers of darkness?

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4 Responses to Bloody Michael Crichton

  1. John M. Ford says:

    Minor corrections to the background: Crichton has a Harvard MD, but has never had a license to practice — I don’t know if he actually did a residency, though given his age at the time I doubt that he can have completed one. Before that, he took a BA in anthropology from Harvard, and according to one source spent time — again, it cannot have been long — as a lecturer in that subject at Cambridge. (The other bios that mention this say that he “taught” there, which some might consider resume padding.) He started writing novels, under a pseud, while he was still at Harvard Medical.

  2. Beck Laxton says:

    Has anyone but me come across his book of essays, ‘Travels’? That has details of his medical training and what its shortcomings were, and some very interesting theories about illness. (It also confirms the details John Ford has given, that Crichton stopped his med training when he started getting his novels published.) The rest of the book is about his experiences with drugs and meditation and travelling and the opposite sex, and it’s *really* interesting – thoughtful and quite scientifically rigorous, but very open-minded. It’s a book I mention to people frequently. I think you’d like it, Andrew.

  3. Beck Laxton says:

    By the way: ‘license to practice’. For sub-editors of UK English, one of the most useful things anyone’s ever pointed out to me is that if you can’t remember whether to use an ‘-se’ or ‘-ce’ suffix, just follow advise/advice – ‘-se’ for verb, ‘-ce’ for noun.

    But am I right in thinking that it’s a licence to practise if you’re writing UK English, but a license to practice in US English? The opposite rule? I wonder why….

  4. Beck Laxton says:

    By the way: ‘license to practice’. For sub-editors of UK English, one of the most useful things anyone’s ever pointed out to me is that if you can’t remember whether to use an ‘-se’ or ‘-ce’ suffix, just follow advise/advice – ‘-se’ for verb, ‘-ce’ for noun.

    But am I right in thinking that it’s a licence to practise if you’re writing UK English, but a license to practice in US English? The opposite rule? I wonder why….

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