Can a work of fiction combat bad science and hyperbole about risk more effectively than academic discourse? Could a novel capture the public imagination, causing a paradigm shift in views about contentious environmental risks?
The proof is Michael Crichton's latest blockbuster, State of Fear. In this techno-thriller, Harvard-trained physician Dr. Crichton confronts the threat of pseudo-science. By pseudo-science, Crichton means the selective use of data to support ideologically-driven positions held by activists who promote themselves as champions of the public interest. Sadly, these self-same activists employ ad hominem attacks against anyone who dares to disagree with them -- essentially cutting off open political and scientific inquiry.
Crichton treads on very sensitive territory. While State of Fear focuses Crichton's skepticism of global warming and its purported causes, the stinging critique comes more generally in what the author calls "the politicization of science," a critique that is applicable to a wide range of contemporary health and environmental issues.
Indeed, just prior to the release of his book in December 2004, Dr. Crichton penned a cover story in Parade Magazine in which he argued that we are being pummeled with baseless health scares -- including saccharin, "endocrine disrupters," deodorants, cell phones, and more. (Again, he is also known for his comparison of the environmental movement with a religion.)
State of Fear is an entertaining, fast-paced, gripping novel. Crichton has an undeniable talent for creating scenarios that seem to offer no hope for the book's heroes, including heart-stopping glimpses of characters caught under ice, or left to the mercy of killer lightning. And that is precisely why so many people will have fun reading this book and get the message at the same time. As the story unfolds with a one-person truth squad confronting a manipulative environmental group, a penetrating theme emerges: many of those purporting to do good end up doing irreparable harm. How? By distorting science in order to achieve political ends.
By spinning a delicious novel around a serious message, Crichton will invite millions of readers to reassess both the motivations and the activities of the world's leading environmental and consumer advocacy groups who now claim to be "saving us" from postulated risks of global warming, pesticides, modern food technology, and environmental chemicals.
Dr. Crichton communicates his concerns about the politicization of science both in the author's notes and in the novel itself. Consider these examples:
The Precautionary Principle
This dogmatic principle argues that if there is even an imagined health or ecological issue associated with some form of technology, then, that technology should be discarded -- no matter what benefits are lost, or what harms will have to be confronted without the technology.
But Crichton notes: "The precautionary principle properly applied forbids the precautionary principle. It is self-contradictory. The precautionary principle therefore cannot be spoken in terms that are too harsh." He adds: "The current near-hysterical preoccupation with safety is at best a waste of resources and a crimp on the human spirit, and at worse, an invitation to totalitarianism."
Certainty Is Dangerous
Some have claimed that environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, are committed to the view that all environmental and health woes can be traced directly to the door of "industry." However, research has demonstrated that development leads to reductions in pollution. Moreover, as Crichton points out, sound public policy does not come from organizations espousing dogmatic and close-minded political agendas -- unmoved by the existing scientific facts when those facts are at variance with the organization's political goals.
Crichton says: "I have more respect for people who change their views after acquiring new information than for those who cling to views they held for thirty years. The world changes. Ideologues and zealots don't." Most environmental groups have an economic interest in being certain. However, says Crichton, "I am certain that there is too much certainty in the world."
Central to the success and survival of self-appointed consumer advocates and protectors of the environment is their technique of ad hominem attacks against those who dare to challenge their claims.
When Crichton's fictional hero Dr. Kenner informs an environmentalist lawyer that there are many studies that do not support the theory of global warming, the attorney retorts with a knee-jerk response: "these studies are probably financed by the coal industry."
Kenner goes on to quiz the lawyer about who pays his salary (environmental advocates who are clients of the law firm) and asks, "are you a paid flunky for the environmental movement...a mouthpiece for a...media machine with a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right?"
The attorney is appalled and furious, but Dr. Kenner continues: "Now you know how legitimate scientists feel when their integrity is impugned by slimy characterizations such as the one you just made."
Killing with Kindness?
DDT has been vilified more than any other chemical in history as a public health and environmental nightmare. Despite the protests of scientists around the world, DDT was banned in 1972 with catastrophic consequences for the developing world.
Crichton's Dr. Kenner sums this matter of risk/benefit up succinctly, noting that DDT was the best defense against malaria-causing mosquitoes: "altogether, the ban has caused more than 50 million needless deaths...anning DDT killed more people than Hitler...and the environmental movement pushed hard for it."
In the novel, Kenner encounters dogmatists but also gives reasons for hope, since some of the people with whom he matches wits change their minds as the evidence accumulates. Dr. Crichton's novel may have a similar effect in the real world, too, which would be an environmental earthquake for purveyors of gloom and doom. The author is a hero for re-opening the dialogue when, for years, only the most intrepid scientists would dare to protest the politicization of science in environmental policy.
Elizabeth Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H., is president of the American Council on Science and Health, which publishes HealthFactsAndFears.com. ACSH is also releasing the book America's War on "Carcinogens": Reassessing The Use of Animal Tests to Predict Human Cancer Risk