Frank Wilson and his blog
Books, Inq. — The Epilogue
Crichton responds to his eco-critics What he's most concerned about, the author says, is a climate of fear.
Crichton responded [in 2005 interview] to his eco-critics What he was most concerned about, the author said, is a climate of fear. [Chricton, author of the cli-fi novel STATE OF FEAR, published in 2004, died in 2008.]
Michael Crichton's latest novel, State of Fear, has drawn, to put it mildly, mixed reviews.
The division of opinion has broken along predictable lines. That's because Crichton's villains are environmentalists with a terrorist bent, and he challenges some widely held views on climate change. So the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani called it a "sorry excuse for a thriller," but conservative columnist George Will plugged it happily.
Crichton, the Harvard Medical School graduate who created the long-running TV hit ER and has a degree in anthropology, has always had a knack for using a potential problem in science or technology as the basis for a blockbuster novel - one that often gets turned into a blockbuster movie.
In State of Fear, the subject is not climate change, but the subversion of science in behalf of sociopolitical agendas. Crichton gave several speeches last year on just that subject, and on Friday he was heading to Europe to give some more. He did, however, take time to answer a few questions via e-mail.
Frank Wilson: You must have known that challenging environmentalist orthodoxy would virtually guarantee that State of Fear would get some harshly critical reviews. Any surprises on that score?
Michael Crichton: No. The attacks are predictable, and have happened to others before me, most recently Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Ad hominem attack is the only way to go when you don't have the facts on your side. . . .
If I had written a book that said the sun revolved around the Earth, nobody would get upset. They'd just say, "No, that's incorrect," and go about their day. . . . Why is it all right for [environmentalists] to be so angry and so hysterical about criticism? . . . It is not in our interest to prevent debate on any subject, least of all the environment.
Question: What would you say is a scientifically sound view to adopt toward the issue of climate change?
Answer: Climate is always changing. In what ways are the changes being altered or exaggerated by human influences? (No one disputes that human beings are affecting climate.) But which human influences are important to address? And what should our response be?
I believe we should continue climate research at the same level that we have funded it in recent years. . . . At the same time, it is important that we keep research in perspective. I argue we should not base real-world policies on the present state of climate science and the present state of computer prediction. It is simply not good enough right now. . . . Climate models vary by 400 percent. With that degree of uncertainty, no one in the real world breaks ground on any project. Ever. . . .
If I suggest to people that waiting gives us access to new technology, they roll their eyes as if I am making some predictable evasion. But it is they who are evading reality. It is sensible to expect major technological change, including unanticipated change. . . .
There is plenty for us to do with our money in the meantime. Ten to twenty thousand people die of waterborne disease every day. We could prevent that. We could provide everybody on the planet with clean water and a decent diet. Q: In a lecture that you gave last January, you said that it is "important for the future of science that the line between what science can say with certainty, and what it cannot, be drawn clearly - and defended." You gave examples of scientists - notably Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich - adapting scientific facts to make political points. Does this not indicate that the blurring of the line you refer to has been aided and abetted by scientists themselves? And that the scientific community as a whole has been content to let them get away with it?
A: Yes. My concern specifically is that some scientists (and increasing numbers, in some fields) have been seduced away from truth-telling into the exciting realms of policy-making and mass persuasion. Both Sagan and Ehrlich are enormously charismatic individuals. . . . And the temptation to promote policies one thinks are important in advance of reasonable scientific certainty can be very great. . . . To mix science and politics will kill science as we know it. And it is immensely dangerous. . . . If you lie to promote your own agenda, you can expect your opponents to lie to promote theirs.
In the end, we are all best served by the unvarnished and apolitical truth. And we are best served by separating policies of choice from policies of necessity.
Q: In another speech, you said that "the greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda." And in State of Fear, one of the characters tells your hero that "the military-industrial complex is no longer the primary driver of society. . . . For the last fifteen years we have been under the control of an entirely new complex, far more powerful and far more pervasive. I call it the politico-legal-media complex. . . . And it is dedicated to promoting fear in the population - under the guise of promoting safety." Would it be fair to say that it is this, rather than environmental extremism, that is the real theme of your book?
A: Yes. . . . Environmental organizations are certainly not the only organizations that operate by evoking fear. But they have cried wolf repeatedly, and thus serve to exemplify the more general point I want to make.
To me, one of the fascinating aspects of the constant creation of fear in our society is that there is no countervailing force. We live under a government that was carefully constructed to have checks and balances. But there is none for fear production. On the contrary, it serves nearly everybody to keep those fears coming. So I have little hope for the future unless people wake up and realize what is being done to them. Or unless we change our laws to define information as a product and allow product liability suits to be brought against bad information.
Crichton's take on climate science had its critics. His conservative line on climate change, to the effect that environmentalists had overstated the case for global warming, played so well with the administration of President George W Bush that he was summoned to the White House and invited to testify at Senate committee hearings.
When the journalist Michael Crowley accused him of becoming one of the experts he so despised in his books, Crichton retaliated by including in his dyspeptic 15th novel, Next (2006), a character called Mick Crowley, a political columnist and closet paedophile accused of raping his two-year-old nephew. The real Crowley, who had railed against Crichton's "breathless, pot-boiler prose", was not the only critic irritated by Crichton's two-dimensional page-turners. Another complained that to call his characters cardboard "would be to endow them with a misleading sense of profundity". Crichton himself would swat away such swipes with a flick of his cheque-book, for his polemical tales earned him a fortune in book sales – reckoned in 2006 to exceed 150 million – and a further fortune, many times over, in film rights and screenplays, all written by himself.
Crichton, who was 6ft 9in, also towered over his rivals as America's most successful screenwriter, occupying a unique niche at the centre of Hollywood power, yet utterly removed from it. Having produced a novel, he would also turn in a first-draft screenplay, structuring the story as a film. But he was impatient of directors who wanted him to develop nuanced characters or polish up his plots and would simply walk away. By the early 1990s, as Variety noted, Crichton – the high priest of "high concept" – had mastered "the process" while demonstrating disdain for it.