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January 9, 2004

Crichton On Science

When Faith And Ideology Decide Fact

Stephen Paul King, Joe Finocchiaro, and Phillip Johnson all pointed me to the Michelin Lecture delivered by Michael Crichton at Cal Tech on January 17, 2003, whimsically entitled "Aliens Cause Global Warming," posted online at http://www.michaelcrichton.com/speech-alienscauseglobalwarming.html. A witty and devastating commentary on some of the non-science behind such public hypes as SETI, Second-Hand Smoke, Nuclear Winter, and Global Warming, and the misrepresentation as science of consensus politics and computer modeling.

Good reading. Some selected quotes:

Rather than serving as a cleansing force, science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity. Some of the demons that haunt our world in recent years are invented by scientists. The world has not benefitted from permitting these demons to escape free.

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. [T]he 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 . . . 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.

This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold.

But now large-scale computer models are seen as generating data in themselves. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world -- increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, the connection between hard scientific fact and public policy became increasingly elastic. In part this was possible because of the complacency of the scientific profession; in part because of the lack of good science education among the public; in part, because of the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy; and in great part because of the decline of the media as an independent assessor of fact.

 
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