Saturday, April 01, 2006

Michael Crichton's "Why Politicized Science is Dangerous"

I just read Appendix I to Michael Crichton's "State of Fear", titled "Why Politicized Science is Dangerous", for a class of mine.

Once again, MC has managed to piss me off -- though I'm sure he doesn't do it to me personally on purpose.

I have three problems with the parallel that he's trying to draw in this essay, between the eugenics movement circa WWI/WWII and climate change:

1. I don't know much about the eugenics movement as a movement, but just reading the quotes provided in MC's text, and knowing about the time at which they were written, it's obvious that we're reading ideas steeped in the extreme laissez-faire attitude of the late 19th century/early 20th, and interconnected with the racist justifications for past and current colonialism, as well as fears about *cultural* integrity. To ignore this application of capitalist ideals and racism to some combination of biology, evolution, and genetics, overlooks the actual "politicization" that made eugenics as a movement possible.

Crichton seems to be pointing at the end result -- that people, prominent people, took to this idea of eugenics at all, publicly -- without saying anything about how it really happened.

2. He also seems to be comparing eugenics as a movement and climate change itself, and I think it's literally apples and oranges. Valid understandings (of the time) of evolution and genetics provided the basis for eugenics, but it was a social movement, a co-opting of those understandings for other purposes, that took place. I don't understand, and Crichton doesn't state, what the social movement is, or its motivations, that is allegedly co-opting our current understanding of climate change for its own purposes. The analogy of science plus social movement is incomplete.

I also fail to see the "claims of moral superiority used to justify extreme actions" he mentions.

Further, I think he's inaccurate when he says that "the measures being urged have little basis in fact or science." The only measures I can think of that he's criticizing with that statement are the eminently reasonable ones of "if humans pumping loads of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is connected to shifts in climate (with the caveat that we don't fully understand the system we're affecting, we can't model it fully accurately) *stopping* some of that pumping might be wise".

3. Crichton seems to be proposing that a scientific consensus is a bad or suspect thing. The thing he points out about climate change -- that (though there's argument over "how") there's not a lot of naysayers in the scientific community -- could just as easily be applied to the imagined debate over evolution. It sounds like he's criticizing what scientists actually do -- which is build and try to prove models that satisfy the available data and, in turn, the available critics of the last model.

The response to the fact that there's little debate on a subject is not necessarily "debate is being suppressed", it can also be "there's a lot of consensus developed".

Lastly, and this is a criticism of Crichton directly, not a perceived gap in this reading or the analogy he's trying to make: he does a disservice when he implies, as I think this work does in a general sense, that any time a scientific theory is widely propagated in the general population of the world, that that's somehow automatically suspect, as if it's now a "fad" rather than a valid idea. Rational thought is not the sole province of "scientists", and, culturally, when you suggest that only scientists can talk intelligently about some concept, or are the only ones who can engage in any discourse, you help maintain the wall between "science" and the "the rest of the world". But scienter, knowledge, belongs to everybody.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Unexpected Warming in Antarctica

Winter air temperatures over Antarctica have risen by more than 2C in the last 30 years, a new study shows.