Michael Crichton, who died at 66 on November 4, election day, may not have been an outstanding stylist but he sure sold a few books in his time, mostly in the techno-thriller genre, such as Jurassic Park. He was a writer of ideas and also a medical doctor (Harvard Medical School), television producer, and film director.
Crichton’s enormous success did not prevent him from speaking out on politicized science, a raging issue of our time and too often overlooked. He took up the theme in State of Fear (2004), a footnoted novel about environmental intrigue on a global scale. The novel doesn’t quite deliver, but the appendix, “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous,” is worth attention.
One of Crichton’s examples is Trofim Lysenko, a Russian peasant who espoused a theory of “vernalization” in which fields could be fertilized without fertilizers and minerals. Favored by Stalin, Lysenko attacked genetics, which Communists branded a “bourgeois pseudoscience” in 1948.
“His theories dominated Russian biology,” Crichton wrote. “The result was famines that killed millions, and purges that sent hundreds of dissenting Soviet scientists to the gulags or the firing squads.”
There was no basis in science for Lysenko’s theories, but political support ensured that they dominated Soviet research for 30 years and endured into the 1960s. That is not so long ago.
Crichton’s other example is the eugenics movement, the idea that the inferior, usually those of darker hue, were breeding too fast and had become, in the words of one advocate, dangerous human pests. This drew the support of luminaries like H.G. Wells, Alexander Graham Bell, Leland Stanford, George Bernard Shaw, and was the subject of research at Yale and Harvard. It disturbed Crichton that eugenics also received support from the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association.
“Now we are engaged in a great new theory,” Crichton wrote, “that once again has drawn the support of politicians, scientists, and celebrities around the world.” He is talking about global warming.
“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.”
Crichton’s warning is valid because of a phenomenon called watermelon environmentalism – green outside, red inside. While lacking in scientific certainty, global warming advocates dislike capitalism, economic growth, and enterprise in general. This outlook has little tolerance for dissenters and wants self-proclaimed experts to call the shots. Global warming mania, also the subject of his author’s message in State of Fear, prompted Crichton to pen this warning.
“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.”
That is worth keeping in mind as much as anything Michael Crichton wrote in The Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park. May he rest in peace.