Sunday, February 8, 2009
Letter to Michael Crichton - State of Fear
April 17, 2005
Dear Dr. Crichton,
On State of Fear and the State of Science
Like all your novels, I bought State of Fear the day it came out, and enjoyed it greatly. One of my favorite parts was the annotated bibliography. I read mostly non-fiction, so when I read a fiction book or see a feature film, I start looking for non-fiction books related to the subject. I just finished Beckerman’s A Poverty of Reason and am currently reading Wildavsky’s Searching for Safety. For me, fiction is like dessert—it’s nice to have from time to time, but I can’t sustain myself on it.
What surprises me is how some people can’t discuss State of Fear or global warming calmly. They get angry at any questioning of global warming—as though it is a foregone conclusion. I myself think it’s healthy to have my assumptions challenged on a regular basis. It seems rather than utilizing science as an independent and objective basis on which to formulate policy, it has for many become a tool to justify and promote an already reached conclusion. A professor of mine retired earlier than he had planned, giving as his reason that “I cannot stomach what passes for knowledge these days.”
A few years ago, I taught a survey of science course at a tech-vocational college. For most of the students, this was probably the last science class they would have. What I wanted them to take away from it was a good understanding of the scientific method, some healthy skepticism, and a few critical thinking skills. The first night I wrote on the board, “How do you know what you think you know?” I held up a bottle of Echinacea and asked the class what it does. One student replied, “It strengthens your immune system.” Then I read the disclaimer on the bottle—“These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.” I went on to talk about double-blind testing, statistical evidence versus anecdotal evidence, and how correlation does not equal causality. In later classes, we examined the problems of bias in research, and one of their projects was to come up with a hypothesis and design a study that would objectively test it. One thing I required was that any Internet sources had to be approved. People don’t often realize that the Internet is a playground for conspiracy theorists. I stressed that people should not hesitate to question anything, and should demand evidence for conclusions being presented as facts. When the course was done, one student told me, “You’ve changed the way I look at the world.”
I admire you greatly for the way you challenge your readers and make them think. That’s not just entertainment—that’s an invaluable service to our society.
Everybody has an agenda except you and me. And possibly my cats.
Links and more info on Michael Crichton at: