JURASSIC DORK: Michael Crichton’s Science Fiction
by Kit Smith
the child of two PhD scientists, I’ve had a problem with
Michael Crichton since Jurassic Park hit the box
office. My parents would not take me to the theatre to see
it. (They also wouldn’t take me to see The Secret of
NIMH, but that may have been due to the inherent irritating
effect of talking animals on grown-ups.) Eventually I saw
it on HBO. The most vivid scenes for me, still to this day,
are of Jeff Goldblum, with his cowboy-boot-clad feet kicked
up, smiling his self-righteous, Cheshire cat smile. The
Park was a standard techno-phobic cautionary tale about
“playing God,” a la Frankenstein and Godzilla, but this
time the evil culprit was cloning, and shoddy cage construction.
This type of puritanical anti-science message has been a
part of American fiction since Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote
Rapaccini’s Daughter. You know the drill: Science
is evil, and scientists are power-mad sociopaths with utter
disregard for the consequences of their actions.
is the message Crichton proliferates in his works of fiction;
along with other insulting messages like working women are
deranged, predatory nymphomaniacs, and the Japanese are
attempting world domination. Harajuku girls aside, this
is patently ridiculous. Yet Crichton, a writer of fiction,
is being called upon by formerly venerable organizations
as the Smithsonian and the United States government for
his guidance navigating the confusing world of climate change.
November 6, 2005, the Smithsonian Center for Lifelong Learning
is sponsoring “An Afternoon with Michael Crichton,” who
will discuss, among other things, the importance of “sound
science as the under-girding framework for public policy-making
in the 21st century.”
Crichton’s sudden decision to appropriate the “doctor” title
seems opportunistic at best, and definitely qualifies as
a lie of omission. He has a degree in medicine from
Harvard (a fine school turning out exemplary scholars in
every field—just look at our president). He apparently never
took, and therefore never passed, the boards. So he’s a
doctor just like a PhD scientist is a doctor, in that he
has a doctoral degree. He’s not, you know, a doctor
doctor. Nor is he a PhD scientist.
“sound science” is a buzzword of the very people who do
not practice it, the kind of people who believe things like
global warming are a plot devised by a nationwide horde
of psycho scientists to frighten the world so that environmentalists
can raise money, or something like that.
Finally, there is the event’s co-sponsor to consider, the
enigmatic Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy.
Established as a non-profit, this consulting firm’s mission
states: “The center’s initial portfolio of research and educational
topics includes such problems as infrastructure protection
and deregulation...(and) the economics of climate change....”
Their only cited project is related to 9/11 and involves something
vague about transforming our national defense and emergency
response mechanisms into a single distributed system. Judging
by the response to Hurricane Katrina, this consulting firm
(or maybe our government...) is being run by Dilbert’s pointy-haired
boss. Unfortunately, consultants and star-struck events-directors
at the Smithsonian in misapprehending that Crichton is a fiction
writer with no legitimate scientific expertise (copies of
Crichton’s newest novel, State of Fear, will be available
for purchase and signing at the seminar). Not surprisingly,
Crichton himself seems to suffer under this delusion.
In late January of this year, Crichton was brought in as an
“expert” at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy
Research (AEI), a neoconservative Washington “think” tank.
Crichton delivered the keynote speech, entitled, “Science
Policy in the 21st Century.” He has also appeared at the California
Institute of Technology and on numerous news shows like “Today”
and “20/20.” He wears dark suits, sets his glasses halfway
down his nose, and speaks with authority. He seems to have
reinvented himself, shedding the skin of mere novelist to
reveal a shiny, winged policy wonk.
Most alarmingly, on September 28 Senator
James Inhofe (R-OK) brought Crichton in to testify at a
Senate Environmental Public Works Committee hearing, as
their key witness, despite the fact that State
of Fear is a novel, regardless of its bibliography
and heavy annotation. You remember Inhofe. He’s the
guy who called the threat of catastrophic global warming
the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
I’m sure his opinion in no way reflects the more than $518,000
he reportedly received from energy interests for his 2002
NASA climate modeler Gavin Schmidt registered his disappointment
with State of Fear upon its release: “…[W]hile researching
this book, Crichton actually visited our lab and discussed
some of these issues with me and a few of my colleagues.
I guess we didn’t do a very good job. Judging from his reading
list, the rather dry prose of the IPCC reports did not match
up to the some of the racier contrarian texts.” The RealClimate
webpage includes a full Q&A on global warming. The website
also features an eloquent and thorough dissection of, and
hyperlinked scientific rejoinders to, assertions Crichton
has made in his novel and a number of his public appearances.
Check it out: Scientists are smart.
We can do math, and many of us know how to poison people
and blow things up. If we were truly motivated by things
like money and power, guess what? We’d have them.
You had better be damn happy that the vast majority of scientific-minded
people are driven by the desire for knowledge and understanding.
Are there those driven by greed? Sure. They’re on ExxonMobil’s
payroll, telling us there’s no such thing as global warming.
Even the Party in Orwell’s 1984 understood
that physical facts could not be ignored. “In philosophy,
or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make
five, but in designing a gun or an airplane they had to
make four.” Crichton, the fictionist, by taking a stance
on science policy is attempting to design a gun while assuming
that two and two make five. Policy is a grey area, yes,
but Crichton’s arguing against the science itself, while
giving great lip service to moderation and reason (“sound
I’m not saying he’s not a good writer, not
remarkably intelligent, or not extraordinarily good-looking.
His books are wildly imaginative and quite readable, especially
if you’re a horny 14-year-old boy. But to say, as the ad
for his Smithsonian appearance does, that he “has helped
millions of readers understand the meaning, usefulness,
and potential dangers of science and technology at the cutting
edge,” is a massive affront to the scientific community.
Crichton’s belief in his own hype—evidenced
by his willingness to malign the work of thousands of scientists
who actually have PhDs in things like meteorology and atmospheric
chemistry and geophysical fluid dynamics—demonstrates his
wanton self-righteousness and utter lack of integrity. Apparently,
most of his scientist characters are based on himself.