Saturday, November 08, 2008


Coming to a Consensus on Crichton

By now you've probably heard of the death of Michael Crichton. You've probably also heard some grandiose talk about his "significance" as an author and purveyor of science to the masses. Normally, I would not try to rain on that parade. Most everyone, upon death, deserves a paean or two from admirers and judicious silence, for a while at least, from critics. Real evaluation takes time in any event.

But this, from a lecture delivered by Crichton at the California Institute of Technology in 2003, discussing the Drake equation, SETI and, inevitably, global warming, as reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, cannot go unmarked.

This serious-looking equation gave SETI a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses -- just so we're clear -- are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be "informed guesses." If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It's simply prejudice.

The Drake equation can have any value from "billions and billions" to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion.

Perhaps I am uninformed but did anyone, including Frank Drake, ever assert that the equation was a quantifiable mathematical model? It was, I believe, merely a way of indicating the magnitude of the numbers involved and how some fairly conservative estimates, plugged into admittedly dubious assumptions, still indicated that there was a non-zero chance of discovering other communicative life forms. And, of course, it was and is testable. That's what SETI did and, to the extent that it continues, is doing -- testing the possibility that there are such civilizations. After all, when we first started SETI, we could have found the universe abuzz with conversation. The fact that we didn't was a test of the more optimistic estimates plugged into the Drake equation. That does not mean we will never find such a civilization, of course, and the immense significance of such a discovery means that keeping up the search at some level is probably worthwhile.

But that is just the beginning of Crichton's misunderstanding of science:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. . .

Well, speaking about "consensus science," as if it was some concrete thing that can, somehow, be done away with, is a little strange but Crichton himself was just going on about testability. What exactly did he think happens when that lone investigator reports his or her results and the rest of the scientific community starts testing it? If it is right and is borne out by testing, the scientific community comes to a consensus that the new idea is correct. Consensus is the result of being right. That is, in fact, exactly what happened with the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming. The hypothesis was proposed and tested and turned out to be well supported.

Certainly, what the scientific community forms a consensus around may turn out to be wrong, to a greater or, more often, lesser degree, but the notion that a consensus is somehow opposed to science and ought to be "stopped in its tracks" is as rigidly ridiculous thinking as any assertion that the consensus is always and necessarily right. In fact, it borders on the lunatic and serves most commonly as a marker for purveyors of pseudoscience.

And the reason that you don't hear about the consensus of science around relativity or the distance from the Sun to the Earth, is that there is no large, well funded, politically significant group of denialists falsely questioning whether those results are scientifically well-supported ... unlike the situation with global warming and evolution. Crichton's examples became accepted science in precisely the same way as the ideas he, for whatever personal reasons, wanted to deny.

Obviously, writing a couple of decent books (later made into better movies) on sciency topics is no guarantee of understanding science.

It strikes me that the main intellectual mistake Crichton has made here is that he's conflated truth and justification. Truth is about how the world is; justification is about what other people will allow us to get away with. Because knowledge in general is concerned with both truth and justification, it's easy to fail to see the difference between them.

And, I'd add, modern science is as much about the invention of new procedures for justification as it is about new techniques for discovering truth.
You are a Popperean, Carl. Which is not a bad thing, on this point at least. I agree with a realist view myself. Crichton was, I suspect, more of a Kuhnean (or the paper-mache version of Kuhn that post modernists love).
It struck me that Chrichton was one of those writers whose views became more extreme with age. I thought Heinlein went the same way...

Then I thought of some recent comments by respected scientists that had upset a lot of people.

Then I thought about how some old people seem to lose all inhibition about saying the most outrageous things (and they get away with it because people chose not to be critical).

I guess I have something to look forward to (about next Tuesday on current form)!
Then I thought about how some old people seem to lose all inhibition about saying the most outrageous things (and they get away with it because people chose not to be critical).

My wife has the female version of this, based on a book title, I believe: 'When I grow old, I will wear purple'. She is now known in some circles as "Aunt Purple".

Exercising that version doesn't stop her from saying outragious things, however.

On the other hand, I, as everyone knows, am the very paragon of sweet reason as I descend into my dotage.
John, just a note to let you know that the Carnival of Elitist Bastards has included your article in this month's edition. The Carnival is up at my blog.
I read your post here via link from Paul (carnival of elitist bastards). I am anything but a scientist, but my view of human nature is that Chrichton, and many others who become famous and/or rich for some reason (or no reason at all) somehow view themselves as being repositories of some "received wisdom" about, well, any subject one might care to name, and our "journalists" happily print their pronunciamentos as though the celeb were the Delphic oracle. Phrased another way, things celebrities say are so seldom worth my attention that I have relaxed (in my dotage?) into paying no attention at all to any of them. Encouraging that disregard in some cases (as with Chrichton) is the fact that these self-appointed pundits generally seem to have an agenda (as with Crichton's "conservative" views). I also don't care what toothpaste they prefer, who they are (or were) sleeping with, or if they pick their noses.
The way I'd characterize that talk of Crichton's is that he stated the obvious and then just assumed that the people he was talking to hadn't worked out those obvious conclusions yet. Of course most of the constants weren't known. Some will probably never be fully known (particularly if the chance of intelligence evolving is low). That doesn't mean you can't draw interesting conclusions from the equation.
Crichton has a gift for sounding authoritative, and has parlayed it into undeserved credibility. It means he can write nifty novels, but that doesn't mean he should be consulted for policy.

I just finished re-reading Andromeda Strain and it didn't hold up all that well. Sounded a lot better when I read it as a kid.
I never had a high opinion of his novels which is why I said the movies made from his books were better than the novels themselves. I suspect he was really novelizing screenplays to begin with.
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