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K. Lloyd Billingsley - Contributor
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

Fear Not
Michael Crichton and "global warming"…
[K. Lloyd Billingsley] 12/24/04

Author Michael Crichton has given the phrase “fear not” a timely new application. In the December 5 issue of Parade magazine, he advises readers not to be frightened by the latest pseudo-scientific superstition. He cites plenty of examples.

In 1972, three years after Crichton earned his medical degree, the world was supposedly headed for a new ice age. Those scientists who remained skeptical of this theory were blasted as irresponsible. Before that, Crichton noted, the prevailing fear was too many people.

"In the 70s, the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death," wrote Paul Ehrlich. Crichton showed how this turned out to be wrong, and so did the charge that we were running out of gold, mercury, tin, zinc, oil, copper, lead, and natural gas. We still have all these things, at prices that fluctuate but which have generally declined over the long term.

Power lines, cyclamates, fluorescent lights, and other items were held to be deadly threats. When they were shown to be false fears, Crichton says he learned to "start regarding each new breathless claim with skepticism."

"In this elastic anything-goes world where science – or non-science – is the hand maiden of questionable public policy," he said last year in a lecture at Caltech, "we arrive at last at global warming." The author could see a familiar pattern: evidentiary uncertainties passed over in the rush for an overarching policy, grants to support the policy by delivering findings desired by the patron, and the "isolation of those scientists who won't get with the program" and who are blasted as "industry flunkies, reactionaries, or simply anti-environmental nutcases." He mentioned the veritable jihad against Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Now something similar is happening to Crichton himself.

State of Fear, his carefully footnoted new novel, dramatizes the conflicts of the global warming debate. But establishment critics are dismissing it out of hand. In the San Francisco Chronicle, David Kipen darkly observed that the appearance of the book when nations were in Buenos Aires discussing the Kyoto Protocol "might itself be something shy of coincidental." Had Mr. Crichton written in conformity with global warming theory, in the manner of the film The Day After Tomorrow, the review would doubtless have been much kinder.

Novels of ideas are notoriously hard to pull off and readers will judge how well Crichton manages the task. Other critics think the author does just fine, in his usual style. There is much for the scientifically savvy to ponder and plenty for the general reader to enjoy.

Meanwhile, as the author recognizes, institutionalized science and institutionalized environmentalism have shown a propensity for dogmatism, sanctimoniousness, and reaction. Michael Crichton finds that prospect troubling and remains skeptical about global warming.

"Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead," he said in his Caltech lecture last year. "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?"

And as he told Parade readers, "So many fears have turned out to be untrue or wildly exaggerated that I no longer get excited about the latest one."

In other words, put facts above pseudo-scientific superstition and fear not. That's a fine holiday message and counsel for the new year. tRO

copyright 2004 Pacific Research Institute




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