We all lose when scientists sell their credibility
Ever wonder why science and scientists are taking such a beating in the public opinion department these days? Then consider the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
Their recent decision to praise pulp novelist Michael Crichton as "journalist of the year" feeds not only cynicism about the oil and gas industry, but also drains public faith in science itself.
We Americans are a skeptical lot, who tend to believe humans — and even more so, human institutions — are not to be trusted. I remember, as a local reporter, covering a debate over a developer who wanted to fill local wetlands. Someone pointed to the scientifically demonstrated 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." The geologists’ association is feeding the same cynicism, only on a global scale.
Crichton produces fat thrillers like Jurassic Parkand The Andromeda Strain. He won the "Journalist of 2006" award from the oil geologists for his latest novel, State of Fear. Every year, the association honors someone "for notable journalistic achievement in communications contributing to public understanding of geology."
In all his work Crichton uses the standard science fiction method of finding some tiny kernel of truth, then blowing it up into fantasy. (This is the literary method that provided the "dilithium crystals" that fuel Star Trek’s USS Enterprise and "endoplasmic slime" that globed Bill Murray in Ghost Busters.) The end result is something that sounds somewhat convincing, but is just pure hokum. There’s nothing wrong with it — in the field of fiction.
Crichton’s method goes on to decorate his pages with official-looking footnotes, with all the stylistic precision of a high-school valedictorian. They’re impressive, as long as you know nothing about the sources he cites. If you do, they tend to disintegrate.
The thing to remember about Crichton is he is a novelist — a writer of fiction — and not a particularly profound one at that. His novels are beach reading that can be enjoyed either with a Mai Tai buzz or to take one’s thoughts off the hangover.
State of Fear is a similar lightweight thriller. The plot surrounds evil environmentalists who peddle hype about global warming to make money. This would be fine if Crichton were just hawking thrillers. But no. He wants to be taken seriously as a social critic. His subtext is an attempt to debunk a large and growing body of research that shows, all too clearly, that carbon we pump into our atmosphere is warming our temperatures. Of course, a source of that carbon is the petroleum we pay petroleum geologists hefty sums to extract from the ground.
In some circles, evidently, Crichton’s pseudo-science is taken seriously. He was invited to the Oval Office to discuss his novel with President Bush. 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 science.
Educators and business leaders know that good scientific understanding and a sound scientific infrastructure are what made America the economic powerhouse of the 20th Century. They know that science has saved us from the horrors of famine and disease. And they look with alarm as schools from kindergarten to graduate programs shy away from even the most basic science.
And no wonder Americans are cynical about science, after hearing from one "health expert" after another under the pay of the tobacco industry tell Americans that smoking won’t hurt them, or at least the evidence is "inconclusive."
The petroleum geologists have benefited greatly from American science, and they have a stake in making sure people understand and support science. This was reflected in the past selections of their annual journalism award. Past winners include scientists who write wonderfully well: Montana paleontologist Jack Horner and the late Harvard professor Stephen J. Gould. Others winners are working journalists, like my personal hero, John McPhee, who can make complex geology not only understandable but also enjoyable. Winners have not always been famous. Montana’s humble Mountain Press, which produces those handy roadside geology guides, has also been honored. There are novelists on the list, such as the late James Michener, who was widely respected for the painstaking research he poured into his encyclopedic novels.
But saying State of Fear is somehow journalism that advances science is like saying the movie Animal House is journalism that advances higher education. But then, Animal House never pretended to be anything but a good laugh.