Thursday, January 01, 2004

The Devil at the Door

Donald Sensing links to a Michael Crichton lecture at Caltech which denounces the corrupting effects of special interest politics on the scientific process. He describes how the belief in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the likelihood of a Nuclear Winter, the danger of second-hand cigarette smoke and the "reality" of Global Warming became established in the public mind without a shred of evidence, nor even the possibility of it. Of special concern to him was the blithe disregard for essential basics like testability, reproduceability and mathematical integrity in the formulation of these beliefs, even by famous scientists and reputable journalistic institutions like the New York Times.

For his own personal reasons, Crichton said he sought safe harbor in the scientific method as the one bright "candle in a demon haunted world", and here was his muse repeatedly endorsing nonsense unworthy of a B-movie plot. To be sure each of the Shibboleths he cites came a-cropper in its turn, but not without inflicting its damage and generating its own legion of cults. He savagely notes how the media has quietly buried references to Nuclear Winter or the infamous Drake Equation as they became exposed as pseudo-science. But how had they gotten onto the policy altar in the first place, he asks, except by betrayal of the scientific method in the first place? He comes to the reluctant conclusion that modern man, for all his pretense to sophistication, has not traveled far from when Galileo was excoriated for insisting upon the facts in the face of superstition. Although Crichton concludes by reminding us that "scientists best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics", he says this without conviction, as if resigned to next onslaught of the demon-dark upon his  light.

The fictional demon Screwtape once observed that lies become established where men are too lazy to think about the truth. Screwtape and Crichton forgot to add was that this error is more easily committed where people are sheltered from the immediate consequences of their mistakes. Misjudgements are unforgivingly punished in the primitive world, but they may persist unnoticed for years in cafe society, secure within its city, until the accumulated weight of folly, gathering like a dark cloud outside the circle of petty laughter, crashes inward to demand its due. One such moment came on September 11, and the injustice of it is not merely that it happened, but that those most responsible for perpetrating the blindness which made it possible are still exempt from account. The tragedy contained within Michael Crichton's observation that mumbo-jumbo trumps science is not just that it happens, but that it will happen again.