Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Seven Answers From Michael Crichton

A little Q&A with Michael Crichton.


To what extent is climate change happening, to what extent is it anthropogenic, and what should we be doing about it?

There has been so much disinformation about my position that I feel obliged to repeat what I said in my book. Yes, the globe is warming; the greenhouse effect is real; CO2 is a greenhouse gas; it is increasing from human activities; we would expect this increased CO2 to produce warming. All true.

But nothing in this sequence of statements implies that CO2 is the primary driver of the warming we are seeing. Not at all. It is one thing to say that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and is therefore causing warming; it is quite another to say CO2 is causing ALL of the warming that we see. There is good evidence (and good physical theory) for the first statement, and weak evidence, primarily computer models, for the second.

Despite all the huffing and puffing, the truth is no one knows how much of the current warming trend is caused by man. Some of it surely is. And some of that anthropogenic warming is caused by the man-made rise in CO2. But how much is attributable to CO2 is not known. In the absence of that vital knowledge, people speak of a consensus of scientists. That's a way to get around the lack of knowledge and the inability to predict (which is the conventional proof of scientific knowledge, hence the usual emphasis in science on testable hypotheses.) Perhaps people and nations will choose to act on the basis of a claimed consensus. They have done so in the past, sterilizing their poor neighbors in the name of eugenics, gulping milk for their ulcers, downing antioxidants to prevent cancer, and soon. But all those behaviors were ultimately proven to lack a scientific basis — in other words, they are superstitions.

If you take antioxidants, last year you were being sensible about your health. This year, you are engaging in superstitious behavior, wasting your money, and possibly harming your health. So what really matters is knowledge, not consensus.

In the end, the issue in climate is not how many scientists agree that CO2 is the primary driver of current warming. The issue is whether the CO2 mechanisms they have embraced accurately account for the behavior of the planet in the recent past, and can predict its behavior in the near future.

Time will tell. But I believe the planet has many surprises in store.

So, too, does the science. I am quite sure we will see greater scrutiny of the global temperature record, and how it is kept. At least one paper has attacked the notion of global mean temperature as an arbitrary calculation having no physical significance at all.

In the meantime, as you know, my own prediction for warming over the next 100 years is 0.8 degrees C. I arrived at this by a complex formula that I will reveal in future years.

You also ask whether we need to do anything about climate change. I think another question that must be asked first: what are the most pressing environmental problems that wealthy western societies should be addressing right now? Where does global warming stand in that list?

In other words, where does global warming fit in our environmental priority list?

Many people behave as if you dare not ask that question. But it is perfectly reasonable to assign priorities to our environmental problems. In fact, it is highly unreasonable not to do so.

So, should we act now, or not? That is appropriately a complex discussion that depends on economic considerations, an understanding of how fast modern societies can change their infrastructures, and on the question of competing needs — and, yes, on moral considerations as well. But taken seriously.

Readers who are interested in my views on what to do about climate can find them in a speech I gave at the National Press Club in Washington called "Our Environmental Future." It can be found at:

How has your public stance on climate change been received?

Any departure from environmental orthodoxy is marked by ad hominem attack, vigorous spread of false information, claims of criminality and mental derangement, and general nastiness. Apparently this is one area where reasonable people cannot disagree.

It's interesting that any entity as complex, changing and difficult to comprehend as the environment should be guarded by organizations that allow no deviation from a single point of view toward what needs to be done. One might have predicted a rather broad range of environmental viewpoints, promoted by an equally broad range of institutions and activist organizations. There is some variation among organizations, of course. But on the subject of global warming, no deviation. That is to say, I am aware of no environmental organization that does not claim global warming is a major threat that must be dealt with now.

I leave it to your readers to explain that puzzle. Complex subject, simplistic response.

Do you really think nanotechnology poses a serious threat, or was Prey just a good story?

I do not understand the reaction the novel evoked in many quarters. People got wound up for no good reason. But that often happens with my books. After Jurassic Park, a Congressman announced he would introduce legislation to ban all research leading to the creation of a dinosaur — until someone whispered in his ear that it couldn't be done.

It's frequently claimed that I am exposing the public to false fears (except when it's claimed I am giving them a false sense of security.) In any case, it's nonsense. I trust my readers. They understand what I am saying. Nobody worried about dinosaurs after Jurassic Park, and nobody worried about nanotechnology after Prey. On the other hand, people worried like hell about cancer and powerlines and other false claims made by the media.

Prey was written as a story about the influence of commerce on science. It was a story about people taking short-cuts to keep to a schedule and meet deadlines. It wasn't really about the emerging field of nanotechnology because the technology described in the novel is entirely fictional. Nanotechnology can't make self-reproducing, evolving nanomachines. Couldn't then, and can't now.

However, the story accurately dealt with certain trends; the novel anticipated a merging of molecular biology and nanotechnology as away to solve certain problems in both fields. And it is true that some Caltech graduate students asked me to visit their lab because "We're doing all the stuff you wrote about." But they weren't, exactly.

I think there is a great need for advanced societies to come to terms with the commercialization of science, which is an enormous social change that has occurred entirely within my lifetime. Science is now a very different game, with very different players, different opportunities, different benefits, and different hazards for the population. But people in general don't understand what has happened.

They will.

Can you paint a brief picture of technological and social development over the next 50 years?

No. I don't think it's possible to predict the future. It's hard enough to predict the past.

GM - boon, threat, or both?

Most of the people I know who are anxious about GM say that their concerns lie with the fact that the technology is of unproven safety. They share their worries with like-minded people by use of their cell phones. When I remind them that cell phones are a technology of unproven safety, and that the construction of all these wireless networks around the world and in our houses is a development of unproven safety, they just shrug. They don't care. Even though most of them are old enough to remember the false fears about cancer and electromagnetic radiation. You'd think that fear could be easily reawakened in them, but no.

From this I conclude fears are a matter of fashion. Worries are like clothing styles, they come and go, rise and fall, based on what the worry fashion leaders tell the herd of independent minds to fear this year. GM is fashionable to fear. But that will change.

What is the most serious threat facing our civilisation?

Loss of classical liberal values in those western societies that embraced them.

England was the first modern state, the first superpower, the first nation to deal with moral issues around the world, and the first nation to install the benefits of what we might now loosely term a liberal society. I mean that in the 19th century sense of liberalism. That notion of liberalism was also present in America, but made it to the Continent only in a pale and limited form. It is a wonderful social conception that must be vigilantly guarded. It is not shared by other nations in the world. Nor is it shared by many citizens in English-speaking countries. Peculiarly, many of our most educated citizens are least sympathetic to classical liberal ideals. Indeed the term 'liberalism' in the modern day has come to imply a constellation of attitudes that John Stuart Mill would not recognize as liberal at all. Nor would, say, John F. Kennedy recognize them as liberal. Kennedy's conception of liberalism was simultaneously more tolerant and more tough-minded: tolerant about varieties of behavior within the society, and tough-minded toward threats to a tolerant society from without.

That's all gone, now. Today there is far too much sensitivity within societies, and too little hard-nosed recognition of threats from without. We are inclined to be intolerant of speech by our friends and neighbors, and tolerant of beheadings, rape, and homophobia in distant lands.

This makes no sense. But here we are.

What are you working on now?

An adventure story like Jurassic Park. I'm enjoying myself.


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