Science and scientists are taking quite a beating in the public opinion department these days. Sometimes there’s a good reason for it. Consider the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
Every year, the geologists’ association
honors someone "for notable journalistic achievement in
communications contributing to public understanding of geology."
The oil geologists gave Michael Crichton their "Journalist of 2006"
award for his latest book, State of Fear. But
Crichton is not a journalist — not even close to one. He
produces fat thrillers like Jurassic Park and
The Andromeda Strain.
In his novels,
Crichton uses the standard science fiction method of taking a tiny
kernel of truth and then blowing it up into fantasy. This is the
time-honored method that gave us the "dilithium crystals" that fuel
Star Trek’s USS Enterprise and the
"endoplasmic slime" that globbed Bill Murray in
Ghostbusters. The end result may sound somewhat
convincing, but is actually just pure hokum. And there’s
nothing whatever wrong with it — in the field of fiction.
Crichton, however, goes on to decorate his pages with
official-looking footnotes, with all the stylistic precision of a
high-school valedictorian.They’re impressive, if you know
nothing about the sources he cites. If you do, they disintegrate.
The thing to remember about Crichton is that he’s a
novelist — a writer of fiction — and not a particularly
profound writer at that. His novels are perfect beach reading; you
can enjoy them with a mai tai buzz, or read them the next morning
to take your mind off the hangover.
Fear is a typical lightweight thriller. The plot involves
evil environmentalists who peddle hype about global warming to make
money. This would be fine if Crichton were just out to amuse us.
But no. He wants to be taken seriously as a social critic. He is
trying to debunk the large and growing body of research that shows,
all too clearly, that carbon we pump into our atmosphere is warming
our temperatures. A prime source of that carbon is the petroleum we
pay petroleum geologists hefty sums to extract from the ground. And
now Crichton has received an award from the petroleum geologists.
Quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?
circles, you see, Crichton’s pseudo-science is taken
seriously. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, says he was impressed by the
voluminous footnotes in State of Fear. There’s a lot of
"non-science" around global warming, he says: "In fact, let’s
call it science fiction." He has the actual science confused with
the science fiction. And he’s not the only one: Crichton was
invited to the Oval Office to discuss his novel with President
I don’t care much about Crichton, but I do
care about science. Given all that the Enlightenment has given
America, we are flirting dangerously with abandoning it. Good
scientific understanding and a sound scientific infrastructure are
what made America the economic powerhouse of the 20th Century.
Science has saved us from the horrors of famine and disease. We all
ought to be alarmed today as schools from kindergarten to graduate
programs shy away from even the most basic science. Of course,
it’s no wonder Americans have become cynical about science.
They remember when one "health expert" after another in the pay of
the tobacco industry told them that smoking wouldn’t hurt
them, or that the evidence was "inconclusive."
Americans tend to be a skeptical lot, who believe that human beings
— and human institutions — are not entirely to be
trusted. When I was a local reporter, I once covered a debate
concerning a developer who wanted to fill in local wetlands.
Someone pointed out the scientifically proven fact that filling in
wetlands tends to contribute to increased flooding. The facts were
dismissed with the wave of a hand: "You pay a scientist what he
wants, and he will tell you what you want." Unfortunately, the
Association of Petroleum Geologists is feeding the same attitude,
only on a global scale.
But the petroleum geologists,
like the rest of us, have benefited greatly from American science,
and they have a stake in making sure people understand and support
it. This was reflected in the past winners of their journalism
award, among them scientists who write wonderfully well: Montana
paleontologist Jack Horner and the late Harvard professor, Stephen
J. Gould. Others winners are working journalists, such as my
personal hero, John McPhee, who makes complex geology not only
understandable but enjoyable. And the winners haven’t always
been famous. Montana’s humble Mountain Press, which produces
handy roadside geology guides, has been honored. There are even
novelists on the list, such as the late James Michener, who was
widely respected for the painstaking research he poured into his
But saying that State of
Fear is the kind of journalism that advances science is
like saying that the movie Animal House is
journalism that advances higher education. Then again,
Animal House never pretended to be anything but
a good laugh.