Skip to comments.Michael Crichton: Fear and Complexity [State of Fear + Why Politicized Science is Dangerous]
Posted on 01/04/2006 7:49:59 AM PST by Tolik
Fear and Complexity
The Independent Institute
San Francisco, CA
November 15, 2005
by Michael Crichton
Is this really the end of the world? Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods?
No, we simply live on an active planet. Earthquakes are continuous, a million and a half of them every year, or three every minute. A Richter 5 quake every six hours, a major quake every 3 weeks. A quake as destructive as the one in Pakistan every 8 months. Its nothing new, its right on schedule.
At any moment there are 1,500 electrical storms on the planet. A tornado touches down every six hours. We have ninety hurricanes a year, or one every four days. Again, right on schedule. Violent, disruptive, chaotic activity is a constant feature of our globe.
Is this the end of the world? No: this is the world.
Its time we knew it.
I am going to challenge you today to revise your thinking, and to reconsider some fundamental assumptions. Assumptions so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we don't even realize they are there. Here is a map by the artist Tom Friedman, that challenges certain assumptions.
Seen close up.
But the assumptions I am talking about today are another kind of map-a map that tells us the way the world works. You will not be surprised to hear that an important assumption most people make is the assumption of linearity, in a world that is largely non-linear. I hope by the end of this lecture that the meaning of that statement will be clear. But we won't be getting there in a linear fashion.
Some of you know that I have written a book that many people find controversial. It is called State of Fear, and I want to tell you how I came to write it. Because up until five years ago, I had very conventional ideas about the environment and the success of the environmental movement.
The book really began in 1998, when I decided to write a novel about a global disaster. In the course of my preparation, I rather casually reviewed what had happened in Chernobyl, since that was the worst manmade disaster in recent times that I knew about.
What I discovered stunned me. Chernobyl was a tragic event, but nothing remotely close to the global catastrophe I was imagining. About 50 people had died in Chernobyl, roughly the number of Americans that die every day in traffic accidents. I don't mean to be gruesome, but it was a setback for me. You can't write a novel about a global disaster in which only 50 people die.
Undaunted, I began to research other kinds of disasters that might fulfill my novelistic requirements. That's when I began to realize how big our planet really is, and how resilient its systems seem to be. Even though I wanted to create a fictional catastrophe of global proportions, I found it hard to come up with a credible example. In the end, I set the book aside, and wrote Prey instead.
But the shock that I had experienced reverberated in me for a while. Because what I had been led to believe about Chernobyl was not merely wrong-it was astonishingly wrong. Let's review that.
The initial reports in 1986 claimed 2,000 dead, and an unknown number of future deaths and deformities arising in a wide swath from Sweden to the Black Sea. As the years passed, the numbers rose; by 2000 there were 15,000-30,000 estimated dead, and so on...
Now, to report that 15,000-30,000 people are dead, when the actual number is 56, represents a big error. To get some idea of just how big, suppose we lined all the victims up in a row. If 56 people are each represented by one foot of space, then 56 feet is roughly the distance from me to the fourth row of the auditorium. Fifteen thousand people is three miles away. It seems difficult to make a mistake of that scale.
But, of course, you think, we are talking about radiation: what about long-term consequences? Unfortunately for the media, their reports are even less accurate.
So: estimates of 3.5 million, or 500,000 deaths, when the actual number is less than 4,000. That's the number of Americans who die of adverse drug reactions every six weeks. Again, a huge error.
But most troubling of all, according to the UN report, is that "the largest public health problem created by the accident" is the "damaging psychological impact [due] to a lack of accurate information...[manifesting] as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state."
In other words, the greatest damage to the people of Chernobyl was caused by bad information. These people weren't blighted by radiation so much as by terrifying but false information. We ought to ponder, for a minute, exactly what that implies. We demand strict controls on radiation because it is such a health hazard. But clearly Chernobyl suggests that false information can be a health hazard as damaging as radiation. I am not saying radiation is not a threat. I am not saying Chernobyl was not a genuinely serious event.
But thousands of Ukrainians who didn't die were made invalids out of fear. They were told to be afraid. They were told they were going to die when they weren't. They were told their children would be deformed when they weren't. They were told they couldn't have children when they could. They were authoritatively promised a future of cancer, deformities, pain and decay. It's no wonder they responded as they did.
In fact, we need to recognize that this kind of human response is well-documented. Authoritatively telling people they are going to die can in itself be fatal.
You may know that Australian aborigines fear something called "pointing the bone." A shaman shakes a bone at a person, and sings a song, and soon after, the person dies. This is a specific example of a phenomenon generally referred to as "hex death"-a person is cursed by an authority figure, and then dies. According to medical studies, the person generally dies of dehydration, implying they just give up. But the progression is very erratic, and shock symptoms may play a part, suggesting adrenal effects of fright and hopelessness.
Yet this deadly curse is nothing but information. And it can be undone with information.
A friend of mine was an intern at Bellvue Hospital in New York. A 28-year old man from Aruba said he was going to die, because he had been cursed. He was admitted for psychiatric evaluation and found to be normal, but his health steadily declined. My friend was able to rehydrate him, balance his electrolytes, and give him nutrients, but nevertheless the man worsened, insisting that he was cursed and there was nothing that could prevent his death. My friend realized that the patient would, in fact, soon die. The situation was desperate. Finally he told the patient that he, the doctor, was going to invoke his own powerful medicine to undo the curse, and his medicine was more powerful than any other. He got together with the house staff, bought some headdresses and rattles, and danced around the patient in the middle of the night, chanting what they hoped would be effective-sounding phrases. The patient showed no reaction, but next day he began to improve. The man went home a few days later. My friend literally saved his life.
This suggests that the Ukranian invalids are not unique in their response, but by the large numbers of what we might call information casualties represent a particularly egregious example of what can happen from false fears.
Well, once I looked at Chernobyl, I began to remember other fears in my life that had never come true. The population bomb, for one. Paul Ehrlich predicted mass starvation in the 1960s. Sixty million Americans starving to death. Didn't happen. Other scientists warned of mass species extinctions by 2000. Ehrlich himself predicted that half of all species would become extinct by 2000. Didn't happen. The Club of Rome told us we would run out of raw materials ranging from oil to copper by the 1990s. That didn't happen, either.
It's no surprise that predictions frequently don't come true. But such big ones! And so many! All my life I worried about the decay of the environment, the tragic loss of species, the collapse of ecosystems. I worried a lot. Poisoned by pesticides, alar on apples, falling sperm counts from endocrine disrupters, cancer from power lines, cancer from saccharine, cancer from cell phones, cancer from computer screens, cancer from food coloring, hair spray, electric razors, electric blankets, coffee, chlorinated water...it never seemed to end..
Only once, when on the same day I read that beer was a preservative of heart muscle and also a carcinogen did I begin to sense the bind I was in.
But Chernobyl started me on a new path. When I began to research these old fears, to find out what had been said in the past, I discovered several important things. The first is that there is nothing more sobering than a 30 year old newspaper. You can't figure out what the headlines mean. You don't know who the people are. Theodore Green, John Sparkman, George Reedy, Jack Watson. You thumb through page after page of vanished concernsissues that apparently were important at the time, and now don't matter at all. It's amazing to realize how many pressing concerns are literally of the moment. They won't matter in six months, and certainly not in six years. And if they won't matter then, are they really worth our attention now?
But as David Brinkley once said, "The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were."
The second thing I discovered was that attempts to provoke fear tended to employ a certain kind of stereotypic, intense language.
For example, here is a climate quote:
Familiar language, isn't it? But this is not about global warming, it's about global cooling. Fear of a new ice age. Anybody here worried about a new ice age? Anybody upset we didn't act now, back then, to stockpile food and all the other things we were warned we had to do?
Here is a quote from a famous 1970s computer study that predicted a dire future for mankind unless we act now:
And here is a third quote, from Paul Ehrlich's population bomb book:
Are you getting a sense of the sameness? Here is one from the UN.
This one is about Y2K.
Now everybody has forgotten Y2K, so let me remind you what was predicted six years ago.
And this was one of the milder ones. Another book predicted the "total meltdown of civilization as we know it." Can't get any stronger than that.
What actually happened? Essentially, nothing.
But notice again the urgent language. The situation is desperate, unprecedented action is necessary, ordinary values must be pushed aside, anyone who disagrees is dangerous and reactionary. Terror, fear, and the end of civilization.
But now you may be thinking, wait a minute, Y2K was a real problem and the concerns, even if exaggerated, nevertheless mobilized people and led to success. This is a common but erroneous view. Here is the UN again.
So governments can congratulate themselves. The only problem is, they have no reason to congratulate themselves, because governments didn't solve this problem. The US government spent 6 billion dollars. But Citibank alone spent nearly 1 billion. And total US expenditures were 100 billion, which means the government spent 6% of the total.
Would Citibank have spent the money to fix its Y2K problem without government urging? Of course, because not to do so would have put them out of business. The same with other banks and businesses around the world. Yet government takes the credit.
To encourage what is happening anyway is a common strategy in many areas of advocacy. For example, it now seems clear that despite the warnings of Paul Ehrlich and others, we are not going to have a population explosion of 14 billion people and mass starvation. How did we avoid this explosion? Because, the head of Planned Parenthood once explained to me, everybody in the world listened to Ehrlich, and got busy stopping population growth. I was astonished she could be so uninformed about her subject area. Ehrlich may be a celebrity in the west, but his advocacy had little to do with solving the problem of population, because that problem was already being solved by itself, at the time he wrote his book.
Here is a graph from the World Bank. Not very easy to understand.
Notice that in 1968, when Ehrlich published the Population Bomb, world birth rates were already in decline. Ehrlich was thus urging people to do what they had already been doing for about 10 years in the third world, and about 100 years in the industrialized world. It's not clear whether he knew this or not. But certainly when he said, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over....At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate..." he was simply wrong. As you see, after his book appeared the death rate remained flat in developed countries, and it fell for another 10 years in developing countries.
Ehrlich's messagecrying out in desperation to urge what's already happeningisn't unique. We have a contemporary example in the call of politicians and activists to end our dependence on fossil fuels, and move to a "carbon neutral" lifestyle. Their call to action is, however, a bit late.
According to Jesse Ausubel of the Rockefeller Institute, the industrialized nations have been decarbonizing their energy sources for 150 years, meaning we are moving away from carbon toward hydrogen. In other words, the ratio of carbon to hydrogen to carbon decreases as you go from wood and hay (1:1) to coal to oil to gas (1:4). Here is an illustration from one of his articles:
Ausubel expects the trend will continue through this century as we move toward pure hydrogenwithout the assistance of lawyers and activists. Obviously if a trend has been continuously operating since the days of Lincoln and Queen Victoria, it probably does not need the assistance of organizations like the Sierra Club and the NRDC, which are showing up about a hundred years too late.
Ausubel's ideas are controversial to some, but not to sites like Sustainability Now:
All right. Then in summary, when I went back to look at old fears, the first thing I found was that newspapers were largely empty; the second thing I found was that the language was uniformly and excessively frightening, and the third thing I found was that a lot of advocacy was encouraging what was happening anyway. But I learned some other things, too.
One interesting feature is the tendency to reversals: a benefit becomes a hazard and then becomes a benefit again. Butter is good, then bad, then good again. Saccharine is good, then bad, then good. But this is also true for some much larger scares, like cancer and powerlines, which hit the media in 1989.
Before 1989, there were books like this, which saw magnetic fields as necessary for life:
1985. The Body Electric. Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life.
Then came Paul Brodeur's articles in the New Yorker magazine.
Brodeur's strong position drew support for his view:
But then a funny thing happened. After about a decade, magnetic fields were rehabilitated. You can chart the progression here:
And finally, in a kind of complete reversal, we now have people selling magnets to increase your exposure to magnetic fields:
And so we complete the circle, from fear to selling point, from magnetic fields that are too powerful for health, to fields that are too weak for health.
Of course, rather than buying these magnets, you could just stand alongside a power line. Or sit with your back to a TV set. Snuggle up to a kitchen appliance. There's lots of ways to increase your exposure to healthful magnetic fields.
I am reviewing these past fears not to make fun of them, but because I think this back-and-forth quality of fears that suddenly rise and subside is symptomatic of a deeper problem with modern environmental thinkinga problem we must fix. Meanwhile, the fears continue to rise and fall.
Let's look at some graphs of past fears. To get a rough idea of the visibility of fears, I did a word search on Nexis for two newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times. These give very rough measures, but they will show you a trend. Here's the graph for Powerlines and Cancer.
A peak following Brodeur's book, then a slow decline as the thesis unravels. A similar sort of pattern for the Population Bomb:
It may not be clear to you, but we can run a 5-year average...
You see a line like this in a stock report, it means sell it. And finally, here's a much sharper peak for Y2K.
As you see, sudden spike2 articles a day, in the WaPo in 1999and then a collapse to almost nothing. The later drift upward appears to have two causes. There's a band called Y2K, and there is a steady trickle of self-congratulatory articles in which people say it's wonderful that we stopped the dreaded crisis in time.
But I want to emphasize the pattern: new fears rise and fall, to be replaced by others that rise and fall. As Mark Twain said, "I've seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass."
I have suggested that this pattern is, in itself, indicative of a problem in how we approach the environment. Lets look why.
Environmental disputes frequently revolve around conflicts of land use, triggered by a fear. The spotted owl is endangered, and that means that logging in the northwest must stop. People are put out of work, communities suffer. It may be, in ten or thirty years, that we discover logging was not a danger to the spotted owl. Or it may remain contentious. My point is that the drama surrounding such disputesangry marches and press coverage, tree hugging, bulldozersserves to obscure the deeper problem. We don't know how to manage wilderness environments, even when there is no conflict at all.
To see why, let's take a case history of our management of the environment: Yellowstone National Park.
Long recognized as a scene of great natural beauty, in 1872 Ulysses Grant set aside Yellowstone as the first formal nature preserve in the world. More than 2 million acres, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. John Muir was pleased when he visited in 1885, noting that under the care of the Department of the Interior, Yellowstone was protected from "the blind, ruthless destruction that is going on in adjoining regions."
Theodore Roosevelt was also pleased in 1903 when as President he went to Yellowstone National Park for a dedication ceremony.
It was his third visit. Roosevelt saw a thousand antelope, plentiful cougar, montain sheep, deer, coyote, and many thousands of elk. He wrote, "Our people should ses to it that this rich heritage is preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with its majestic beauty all unmarred."
But Yellowstone was not preseved. On the contrary, it was altered beyond repair in a matter of years. By 1934, the park service acknowledged that "white-tailed deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone."
What they didn't say was that the park service was solely responsible for the disappearances. Park rangers had been shooting the animals for decades, even though that was illegal since the Lacey Act of 1894. But they thought they knew best. They thought their environmental concerns trumped any mere law.
What actually happened at Yellowstone is a cascade of ego and error. But to understand it, we have to go back to the 1890s. Back then it was believed that elk were becoming extinct, and so these animals were fed and encouraged. Over the next few years the number of elk in the park exploded. Roosevelt had seen a few thousand animals, and had noted they were more numerous than on his last visit.
Nine years later, in 1912, there were 30,000. By 1914, 35,000. Things were going very well. Rainbow trout had also been introduced, and though they crowded out the native cutthroats, nobody really worried. Fishing was great. Bears were increasing in numbers, and moose, and bison.
By 1915, Roosevelt realized the elk had become a problem, and he urged "scientific management." His advice was ignored. Instead, the park service did everything they could to increase their numbers.
The results were predictable.
Antelope and deer began to decline, overgrazing changed the flora, aspen and willows were being eaten and did not regenerate. Large animals and small began to disappear from the park. In an effort to stem the loss, the park rangers began to kill predators, which they did without public knowledge.
They eliminated the wolf and cougar and were well on their way to getting rid of the coyote. Then a national scandal broke out; new studies showed that it wasn't predators that were killing the other animals. It was overgrazing from too many elk. The management policy of killing predators had only made things worse.
Meanwhile the environment continued to change. Aspen trees, once plentiful in the park, where virtually destroyed by the enormous herds of hungry elk.
With the aspen gone, the beaver had no trees to make dams, so they disappeared. Beaver were essential to the water management of the park; without dams, the meadows dried hard in summer, and still more animals vanished. Situation worsened. It became increasingly inconvenient that all the predators had been killed off by 1930. So in the 1960s, there was a sigh of relief when new sightings by rangers suggested that wolves were returning.
There were also persistent rumors the rangers were trucking them in; but in any case, the wolves vanished soon after; they needed to eat beaver and other small rodents, and the beaver had gone.
Pretty soon the park service initiated a PR campaign to prove that excessive elk were not responsible for the problems in the park, even though they were. The campaign went on for about a decade, during which time the bighorn sheep virtually disappeared.
Now we're in the 1970s, and bears were recognized as a growing problem. They used to be considered funloving creatures, and their close association with human beings was encouraged within the park:
But now it seemed there were more bears and many more lawyers,
and thus more threat of litigation. So the rangers moved the grizzlies away. The grizzlies promptly became endangered; their formerly growing numbers shrank instead. The park service refused to let scientists study them, but once they were declared endangered, the scientists could go in.
And by now we are about ready to reap the rewards of our forty-year policy of fire suppression, Smokey the Bear, all that. The Indians used to burn forest regularly, and lightning causes natural fires every year. But when these are suppressed, the branches that drop to the ground and accumulate over the years make for a very low, very hot fire that sterilizes the soil. And in 1988, Yellowstone burned. All in all, 1.2 million acres were scorched, and 800,000 acres, one third of the park, burned.
Then, having killed the wolves, having tried to sneak them back in, they officially brought the wolves back, and the local ranchers screamed. But newer reports suggest the wolves seem to be eating enough of the elk that slowly the ecology of the park is being restored. Or so it is claimed. It has been claimed before.
And on, and on. As the story unfolds, it becomes impossible to overlook the cold truth that when it comes to managing 2.2 million acres of wilderness, nobody since the Indians has the faintest idea how to do it. And nobody asked the Indians, because the Indians managed the land very aggressively, very intrusively. The Indians started fires regularly, burned trees and grasses, hunted the large animals, elk and moose, to the edge of extinction. White men refused to do that, and made things worse.
To solve that embarrassment, everybody pretended that the Indians had not altered the landscape. These pioneer ecologists, as Steward Udall called them, did not manipulate the land. But now the wisdom of the Indian land management policies is increasingly difficult to cover up.
Now, if we are to do better in this new century, what must we do differently? In a word, we must embrace complexity theory. We must
understand complex systems.
We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.
By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.
Furthermore, a complex system is sensitive to initial conditions. You can get one result from it on one day, but the identical interaction the next day will yield a different result. We cannot know with any certainty how the system will respond.
Third, when we do something to a complex system, we may get downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must be watchful of delayed and untoward consequences.
The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now thirty years old. A third of a century is plenty of time for this knowledge and to filter down to everyday consciousness, but except for sloganslike the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway around the worldnot much has penetrated general human thinking.
On the other hand, complexity theory has raced through the financial world. It has been briskly incorporated into medicine. But organizations that care about the environment do not seem to notice that their ministrations are deleterious in many cases. Lawmakers do not seem to notice when their laws have unexpected consequences. Governors and mayors and managers may manage their complex systems well or badly, but if they manage well, it is usually because they have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with complex systems. Other managers fail.
Why? Our human predisposition is to treat all systems as linear when they are not. A linear system is a rocket flying to Mars. Or a cannonball fired from a canon. Its behavior is quite easily described mathematically. A complex system is water gurgling over rocks, or air flowing over a bird's wing. The mathematics are complicated, and in fact no understanding of these systems was possible until the widespread availability of computers.
One complex system that most people have dealt with is a child. If so, you've probably experienced that when you give the child an instruction, you can't be certain what the response will be. Especially if the child is a teenager. And similarly, you can't be sure that an identical interaction on another day won't have spectacularly different outcomes.
If you have a teenager, or if you invest in the stock market, you know that a complex system cannot be controlled, it can only be managed. Because its behavior cannot be predicted, It can only be observed and responded to.
An important feature of complex systems is that we don't know how they work. We don't understand them, we just interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don't. Sometimes spectacularly.
What, then, happened in Yellowstone? People thought they understood the system. And they were wrong.
Let's look back to the 1970s, the Club of Rome, Limits of Growth. It has this chart to explain what regulates fertility.
Pretty simple, isnt it? Unfortunately, within 20 years...
Scientists were saying nobody could predict population in any respect. They were starting to understand how diverse were the influences.
But these charts...here's another one showing the relation of capital to population. Isn't it great they could fit it all on one page?
The point is, this is highly simplified thinking. And it goes on to this day. Here's a modern chart, from a sustainability website. It shows the relationships of pretty much everything: lithosphere, biosphere, market, community, customers. Who makes a chart like this? Who thinks the world operates in the least this way?
Because look. It does not explain the world. One side is not an explanation of the other side.
In fact, this chart showing everything is absurdly simple. Here, for example, is a far more complex diagram. It represents the nerves in the stomach of the lobster.
Look, this kind of simplification doesn't even explain man-made complex systems. Here is a financial market
and we all know that if you were to make one single change, say, increase the price of crude oil, or charge a white house aide with a felony, you could not be sure how the financial system would react. Nobody knows.
People make their businesses out of trying to figure it out. But nobody knows, except for insider traders.
Same for financial systems all around the world. Here's an article from the NY Times that says, we can't even know the simplest things about our financial status. Is the nation's productivity going up or down? Nobody knows.
If we can't even understand the basic aspects of our own systems, what makes anybody think we can understand natural environments, that are a thousand times more complicated?
You cant understand the stock market, but you think you can understand a storm like this, swirling and churning, several hundred miles in diameter? You think you can know its behavior and its causes? Its nonsense.
Similarly at the microscopic level. Heres hemoglobin, a single molecule weve studied for decades, and are only beginning to really understand. As you see, hemoglobin
is far more complicated than the original drawing of everything. A single molecule in a single cell is more complicated than that drawing of the whole world.
But the heart that pumps these red cells is driven by an electrical stimulus, that spreads across the muscle in a very complex way, a way that is now understood with the help of complexity theory. Here is a conventional image
and here is a video image of the spread of the conduction, a Duke university study.
This kind of understanding of natural processes is precisely what has been missing from environmental thought. Thirty odd years later, it's time to catch up. Stop worrying about decarbonization, which is taking care of itself, and start worrying about Yellowstone, which isn't.
So, what happened at Yellowstone?
I would say, somebody really believed the world operated like this. And they acted on that belief.
Kill the wolves, and save the elk. Move the grizzlies, and avoid the lawyers. And on, and on. It's this thinking that must go. But we haven't learned that lesson.
We can only have these simple ideas if we don't really understand what a complex system is. We're like the blonde who returned the scarf because it is too tight.
Fortunately, we can learn to manage complex systems. There are people who have studied it, and know how to do it. But it takes is humility. And with that, something very importantthe ability to admit we are wrong, and to change course. If you manage a complex system you will frequently, if not always, be wrong. You have to backtrack. You have to acknowledge error. You've probably learned that with your children. Or, if you don't have children, with your bosses.
And one other thing. We have to not be afraid. Fear may produce a television audience. It may generate cash for an advocacy group. But fear paralyzes us. It freezes us. And we need to put that behind us, as we move into a new era of managing complexity. Because look:
Is it the end of the world? Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods? No, we live on an active planet. Earthquakes are continuous, a million and a half a year, or three every minute. A Richter 5 every six hours, a major quake every 3 weeks. A quake the size of Pakistan every 8 months. At any moment there are 1,500 electrical storms on the planet. A tornado touches down every six hours. Ninety hurricanes a year, or one every four days. It's constant. Is this the end of the world? No: this is the world.
It's time we knew it.
Credits for Fear and Complexity
Friedman Map. Untitled, 1991-94, acrylic, pressed type ink on paper, 43 x 59.5 cm. Tom Friedman, New York: Phaidon, 2001, pg. 121.
Ponte, Lowell, The Cooling. Englewood, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972.
Meadows, Donella H., et al. The Limits to Growth. New York: New American Library, 1972.
Ehrlich, Paul R., The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.
The United Nations, UN Working Group on Informatics. 1998.
Hyatt, Michael S., The Y2K Personal Survival Guide. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1999.
Bates, Dorothy R. and Albert K. Bates, The Y2K Survival Guide and Cookbook, Summertown, TN: Ecovillage, 1999.
The United Nations, (http://www.unesacpe.org/56/e1183e.htm). All rights reserved.
World Bank Graph. (www.worldbank.org/...global/chapter3.html). Fig. 3.2 All rights reserved.
Ausubel, Jesse H., Copyright © "Where is Energy Going?" The Industrial Physicist (publication of American Institute of Physics), February 2000. pp 16 ff. All rights reserved.
Sustainability Now. (http://www.sustainability.ca/) Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.
Magnetico Sleep Pads Ad. (http://www.magneticosleep.com/). Copyright © Women's Health and Fitness, 2003. All rights reserved.
Yellowstone photographs. Copyright © U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service. (http://www.nps.gov/yell/slidefile/). All rights reserved.
Cohen, Joel E., How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Fertility chart. Copyright © 1972, Meadows et. al, The Limits of Growth. All rights reserved.
Capital to Population Chart. Copyright © 1972, Meadows et. al, The Limits of Growth. All rights reserved.
Earth photograph. Copyright © NASA. All rights reserved.
Gursky, Andreas., Chicago Board of Trade. All rights reserved
Gross, Daniel, Productivity is Up. Or Down. Pick Your Statistic. New York Times: August 21, 2005.
Heart Muscle cutaway image. (classes.aces.uiuc.edu/ AnSci312/Muscle/Ber%207) ) Copyright © 2005 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. All rights reserved.
Hemoglobin image. (www.users.csbsju.edu) Copyright © 2005 College of Saint Benedict, Saint John's University. All rights reserved.
Cardiac Stimulation Video. (http://circres.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/87/7/e25) David M. Harrild, Craig S. Henriquez, A Computer Model of Normal Conduction in the Human Atria, Circulation Research. 2000;87:e25. All rights reserved.
End of world slide. World Environment. Independent Online. October 16, 2005. All rights reserved.
Why Politicized Science is Dangerous
(Excerpted from State of Fear)
Imagine that there is a new scientific theory that warns of an impending crisis, and points to a way out.
This theory quickly draws support from leading scientists, politicians and celebrities around the world. Research is funded by distinguished philanthropies, and carried out at prestigious universities. The crisis is reported frequently in the media. The science is taught in college and high school classrooms.
I don't mean global warming. I'm talking about another theory, which rose to prominence a century ago.
Its supporters included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill. It was approved by Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, who ruled in its favor. The famous names who supported it included Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone; activist Margaret Sanger; botanist Luther Burbank; Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University; the novelist H. G. Wells; the playwright George Bernard Shaw; and hundreds of others. Nobel Prize winners gave support. Research was backed by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. The Cold Springs Harbor Institute was built to carry out this research, but important work was also done at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. Legislation to address the crisis was passed in states from New York to California.
These efforts had the support of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the National Research Council. It was said that if Jesus were alive, he would have supported this effort.
All in all, the research, legislation and molding of public opinion surrounding the theory went on for almost half a century. Those who opposed the theory were shouted down and called reactionary, blind to reality, or just plain ignorant. But in hindsight, what is surprising is that so few people objected.
Today, we know that this famous theory that gained so much support was actually pseudoscience. The crisis it claimed was nonexistent. And the actions taken in the name of theory were morally and criminally wrong. Ultimately, they led to the deaths of millions of people.
The theory was eugenics, and its history is so dreadful --- and, to those who were caught up in it, so embarrassing --- that it is now rarely discussed. But it is a story that should be well know to every citizen, so that its horrors are not repeated.
The theory of eugenics postulated a crisis of the gene pool leading to the deterioration of the human race. The best human beings were not breeding as rapidly as the inferior ones --- the foreigners, immigrants, Jews, degenerates, the unfit, and the "feeble minded." Francis Galton, a respected British scientist, first speculated about this area, but his ideas were taken far beyond anything he intended. They were adopted by science-minded Americans, as well as those who had no interest in science but who were worried about the immigration of inferior races early in the twentieth century --- "dangerous human pests" who represented "the rising tide of imbeciles" and who were polluting the best of the human race.
The eugenicists and the immigrationists joined forces to put a stop to this. The plan was to identify individuals who were feeble-minded --- Jews were agreed to be largely feeble-minded, but so were many foreigners, as well as blacks --- and stop them from breeding by isolation in institutions or by sterilization.
As Margaret Sanger said, "Fostering the good-for-nothing at the expense of the good is an extreme cruelty there is not greater curse to posterity than that of bequeathing them an increasing population of imbeciles." She spoke of the burden of caring for "this dead weight of human waste."
Such views were widely shared. H.G. Wells spoke against "ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens." Theodore Roosevelt said that "Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind." Luther Burbank" "Stop permitting criminals and weaklings to reproduce." George Bernard Shaw said that only eugenics could save mankind.
There was overt racism in this movement, exemplified by texts such as "The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy" by American author Lothrop Stoddard. But, at the time, racism was considered an unremarkable aspect of the effort to attain a marvelous goal --- the improvement of humankind in the future. It was this avant-garde notion that attracted the most liberal and progressive minds of a generation. California was one of twenty-nine American states to pass laws allowing sterilization, but it proved the most-forward-looking and enthusiastic --- more sterilizations were carried out in California than anywhere else in America.
Eugenics research was funded by the Carnegie Foundation, and later by the Rockefeller Foundation. The latter was so enthusiastic that even after the center of the eugenics effort moved to Germany, and involved the gassing of individuals from mental institutions, the Rockefeller Foundation continued to finance German researchers at a very high level. (The foundation was quiet about it, but they were still funding research in 1939, only months before the onset of World War II.)
Since the 1920s, American eugenicists had been jealous because the Germans had taken leadership of the movement away from them. The Germans were admirably progressive. They set up ordinary-looking houses where "mental defectives" were brought and interviewed one at a time, before being led into a back room, which was, in fact, a gas chamber. There, they were gassed with carbon monoxide, and their bodies disposed of in a crematorium located on the property.
Eventually, this program was expanded into a vast network of concentration camps located near railroad lines, enabling the efficient transport and of killing ten million undesirables.
After World War II, nobody was a eugenicist, and nobody had ever been a eugenicist. Biographers of the celebrated and the powerful did not dwell on the attractions of this philosophy to their subjects, and sometimes did not mention it at all. Eugenics ceased to be a subject for college classrooms, although some argue that its ideas continue to have currency in disguised form.
But in retrospect, three points stand out. First, despite the construction of Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, despite the efforts of universities and the pleadings of lawyers, there was no scientific basis for eugenics. In fact, nobody at that time knew what a gene really was. The movement was able to proceed because it employed vague terms never rigorously defined. "Feeble-mindedness" could mean anything from poverty to illiteracy to epilepsy. Similarly, there was no clear definition of "degenerate" or "unfit."
Second, the eugenics movement was really a social program masquerading as a scientific one. What drove it was concern about immigration and racism and undesirable people moving into one's neighborhood or country. Once again, vague terminology helped conceal what was really going on.
Third, and most distressing, the scientific establishment in both the United States and Germany did not mount any sustained protest. Quite the contrary. In Germany scientists quickly fell into line with the program. Modern German researchers have gone back to review Nazi documents from the 1930s. They expected to find directives telling scientists what research should be done. But none were necessary. In the words of Ute Deichman, "Scientists, including those who were not members of the [Nazi] party, helped to get funding for their work through their modified behavior and direct cooperation with the state." Deichman speaks of the "active role of scientists themselves in regard to Nazi race policy where [research] was aimed at confirming the racial doctrine no external pressure can be documented." German scientists adjusted their research interests to the new policies. And those few who did not adjust disappeared.
A second example of politicized science is quite different in character, but it exemplifies the hazard of government ideology controlling the work of science, and of uncritical media promoting false concepts. Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was a self-promoting peasant who, it was said, "solved the problem of fertilizing the fields without fertilizers and minerals." In 1928 he claimed to have invented a procedure called vernalization, by which seeds were moistened and chilled to enhance the later growth of crops.
Lysenko's methods never faced a rigorous test, but his claim that his treated seeds passed on their characteristics to the next generation represented a revival of Lamarckian ideas at a time when the rest of the world was embracing Mendelian genetics. Josef Stalin was drawn to Lamarckian ideas, which implied a future unbounded by hereditary constraints; he also wanted improved agricultural production. Lysenko promised both, and became the darling of a Soviet media that was on the lookout for stories about clever peasants who had developed revolutionary procedures.
Lysenko was portrayed as a genius, and he milked his celebrity for all it was worth. He was especially skillful at denouncing this opponents. He used questionnaires from farmers to prove that vernalization increased crop yields, and thus avoided any direct tests. Carried on a wave of state-sponsored enthusiasm, his rise was rapid. By 1937, he was a member of the Supreme Soviet.
By then, Lysenko and his theories dominated Russian biology. The result was famines that killed millions, and purges that sent hundreds of dissenting Soviet scientists to the gulags or the firing squads. Lysenko was aggressive in attacking genetics, which was finally banned as "bourgeois pseudoscience" in 1948. There was never any bias for Lysenko's ideas, yet he controlled Soviet research for thirty years. Lysenkoism ended in the 1960s, but Russian biology still has not entirely recovered from that era.
Now we are engaged in a great new theory that once again has drawn the support of politicians, scientists, and celebrities around the world. Once again, the theory is promoted by major foundations. Once again, the research is carried out at prestigious universities. Once again, legislation is passed and social programs are urged in its name. Once again, critics are few and harshly dealt with.
Once again, the measures being urged have little basis in fact or science. Once again, groups with other agendas are hiding behind a movement that appears high-minded. Once again, claims of moral superiority are used to justify extreme actions. Once again, the fact that some people are hurt is shrugged off because an abstract cause is said to be greater than any human consequences. Once again, vague terms like sustainability and generational justice --- terms that have no agreed definition --- are employed in the service of a new crisis.
I am not arguing that global warming is the same as eugenics. But the similarities are not superficial. And I do claim that open and frank discussion of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed. Leading scientific journals have taken strong editorial positions of the side of global warming, which, I argue, they have no business doing. Under the circumstances, any scientist who has doubts understands clearly that they will be wise to mute their expression.
One proof of this suppression is the fact that so many of the outspoken critics of global warming are retired professors. These individuals are not longer seeking grants, and no longer have to face colleagues whose grant applications and career advancement may be jeopardized by their criticisms.
In science, the old men are usually wrong. But in politics, the old men are wise, counsel caution, and in the end are often right.
The past history of human belief is a cautionary tale. We have killed thousands of our fellow human beings because we believed they had signed a contract with the devil, and had become witches. We still kill more than a thousand people each year for witchcraft. In my view, there is only one hope for humankind to emerge from what Carl Sagan called "the demon-haunted world" of our past. That hope is science.
But as Alston Chase put it, "when the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power."
That is the danger we now face. And this is why the intermixing of science and politics is a bad combination, with a bad history. We must remember the history, and be certain that what we present to the world as knowledge is disinterested and honest.
Author's Message from State of Fear:
A novel such as State of Fear, in which so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues. I have bee reading environmental texts for three years, in itself a hazardous undertaking. But I have had an opportunity to look at a lot of data, and to consider many points of view. I conclude:
We know astonishingly little about every aspect of the environment, from its past history, to its present state, to how to conserve and protect it. In every debate, all sides overstate the extent of existing knowledge and its degree of certainty.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing, and human activity is the probable cause.
We are also in the midst of a natural warming trend that began about 1850, as we emerged from a four-hundred-year old cold spell known as the "Little Ice Age."
Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon.
Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made.
Nobody knows how much warming will occur in the next century. The computer models vary by 400 percent, de facto proof that nobody knows. But if I had to guess --- the only thing anyone is doing, really --- I would guess the increase will be 0.812436 degrees C. There is no evidence that my guess about the state of the world one hundred years from now is any better or worse than anyone else's. (We can't "assess" the future, nor can we "predict" it. These are euphemisms. We can only guess. And informed guess is just a guess.)
I suspect that part of the observed surface warming will ultimately be attributable to human activity. I suspect that the principal human effect will come from land use, and that the atmospheric component will be minor.
Before making expensive policy decisions on the basis of climate models, I think it is reasonable to require that those models predict future temperatures accurately for a period of ten years. Twenty would be better.
I think for anyone to believe in impending resource scarcity, after two hundred years of such false alarms, is kind of weird. I don't know whether such a belief today is best ascribed to ignorance of history, sclerotic dogmatism, unhealthy love of Malthus, or simple pigheadedness, but it is evidently a hardly perennial in human calculation.
There are many reasons to shift away from fossil fuels, and we will do so in the next century without legislation, financial incentives, carbon-conservation programs, or the interminable yammering of fearmongers. So far as I know, nobody had to ban horse transportation in the early twentieth century.
I suspect the people of 2100 will be much richer than we are, consume more energy, have a smaller global population, and enjoy more wilderness than we have today. I don't think we have to worry about them.
The current near-hysterical preoccupation with safety is at best a waste of resources and a crimp on the human spirit, and at worst an invitation to totalitarianism. Public education is desperately needed.
I conclude that most environmental "principles" (such as sustainable development or the precautionary principle) have the effect of preserving the economic advantages of the West and thus constitute modern imperialism toward the developing world. It is a nice way of saying, "We got ours and we don't want you to get yours, because you'll cause too much pollution."
I believe people are will intentioned. But I have great respect for the corrosive influence of bias, systematic distortions of thought, the power of rationalization, the guises of self-interest, and the inevitability of unintended consequences.
I have more respect for people who change their views after acquiring new information than for those who cling to views they held thirty years ago. The world changes, Ideologues and zealots don't.
In the thirty-five-odd years since the environmental movement came into existence, science has undergone a major revolution. This revolution has brought new understanding of nonlinear dynamics, complex systems, chaos theory, catastrophe theory. It has transformed the way we think about evolution and ecology. Yet these no-longer-new ideas have hardly penetrated the thinking of environmental activists, which seems oddly fixed in the concepts and rhetoric of the 1970's.
We haven't the foggiest notion how to preserve what we term "wilderness," and we had better study it in the field and learn how to do so. I see no evidence that we are conducting such research in a humble, rational and systematic way. I therefore hold little hope for wilderness management in the twenty-first century. I blame environmental organizations every bit as much as developers and strip miners. There is no difference in outcomes between greed and incompetence.
We need a new environmental movement, with new goals and new organizations. We need more people working in the field, in the actual environment, and fewer people behind computer screens. We need more scientists and many fewer lawyers.
We cannot hope to manage a complex system such as the environment through litigation. We can only change its state temporarily --- usually by preventing something --- with eventual results that we cannot predict and ultimately cannot control.
Nothing is more inherently political than our shared physical environment, and nothing is more ill served by allegiance to a single political party. Precisely because the environment is shared it cannot be managed by one faction according to its own economic or aesthetic preferences. Sooner or later, the opposing faction will take power, and previous policies will be reversed. Stable management of the environment requires recognition that all preferences have their place: snowmobilers and fly fisherman, dirt bikers and hikers, developers and preservationists. These preferences are at odds, and their incompatibility cannot be avoided. But resolving incompatible goals is a true function of politics.
We desperately need a nonpartisan, blinded funding mechanism to conduct research to determine appropriate policy. Scientists are only too aware whom they are working for. Those who fund research --- whether a drug company, a government agency, or an environmental organization --- always have a particular outcome in mind. Research funding is almost never open-ended or open-minded. Scientists know that continued funding depends on delivering the results the funders desire. As a result, environmental organization "studies" are every bit as biased and suspect as industry "studies." Government "studies" are similarly biased according to who is running the department or administration at the time. No faction should be given a free pass.
I am certain there is too much certainty in the world.
I personally experience a profound pleasure being in nature. My happiest days each year are those I spend in wilderness. I wish natural environments to be preserved for future generations. I am not satisfied they will be preserved in sufficient quantities, or with sufficient skill. I conclude that the "exploiters of the environment" include environmental organizations, government organizations, and big business. All have equally dismal track records.
Everybody has an agenda. Except me.
Great read -- thanks for posting!
A great read.
Hitlery is a big fan of Margaret Sanger.
Awesome post! Crichton is absolutely right and that is why he has been attacked so baselessly of late after being a darling of the media. He has laid bare the simplemindness of environmental activists and others. I was talking to a friend just yesterday and I've had to burst his bubble many times because he believes that some day robots will do all the work and we will be forced into some weird socialist system out of necessity. This on face value is something that seems plausible but only on the surface when one excludes the complexity of the existing world. You have to exclude the market forces that drive the development of robotics, you have to exclude the practical limits on robotic technology, you have to exclude the increasing growth of service oriented jobs that will explode as the price of goods fall from the use of automation (something we already see), you have to exclude social forces and the fact that people and politics play a huge role in how things unfold regardless of utopian dreams before you can reach such a baseless conclusion but every day we see baseless conclusions become equally baseless laws and receive baseless funding. Too many conclusions are driven by wish fulfillment and the need of people who do not believe in God to have a faith in something even if it is only their ability to scare people and politicians to fill their pockets with money.
Have y'all read "State of Fear" by Michael Crichton? It's a really good book.
This is a long article by Crichton, but worth reading!
Super article. I've e-mailed the original URL to friends and family, will send further, especially the eco-weenies among them...
Yes, that part was if I may say .. delicious!
Good, I was looking for something to read. Thanks
Save for home reading.
a must read
A good explaination of what he believes.
Wow! I never much cared for his novels. It looks like his NONfiction may be well worth the price of admission.
hella-bump for later!
I think that it's unfortunate that the people who really need to read this book, won't.
I also think that it speaks volumes for the book that environmentalists are defacing them in bookstores. If it makes them mad, that means the book has got them worried. C
Bookmark for later.
Of course in his plot, exactly that happened. The tsunami was caused and petered out long before it reached Malibu.
He didn't mention the extensive damage it would have caused closer to home, though, except on the island itself. The conclusion we intuitively reached was that there was little but water between the island and the US.
I thought the way it was written, from the point of view of a committed environmentalist who realized all his ideas were wrong, was superbly effective. And I thought the character of Morton was cool.
In the story, the tsunami was only partially generated due to the heros interfering with the machinery. There was a very strong implication that if it had functioned as intended the tsunami would have indeed devastated CA.
Which is just idiotic, IMHO. Effects on Australia, New Zealand, all the Polynesian Islands, Hawaii, probably Japan, etc. would by definition have been much greater than on CA. Yet the damage to CA was supposed to be the enviro-terrorists greatest talking point.
Poorly written book, IMO.
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