Monday, December 20, 2004

Crichton's _State of Fear_

I'm reading Michael Crichton's new book. He was one of the folks who really got me intersted in science back in the days when he wasn't tremendously famous. I've noticed a real falling off in his writing since Jurassic Park made him really rich, but I held out hope that this one might be interesting, anyhow.

And it does look like the book will be interesting. It also looks like the novel will be bad--about on the standard of The Davinci Code: pretty poor as literature, pretty implausible and old as far as plot goes.

But, I skipped to the end just to see what Crichton had as an afterword, and he has an extensive annotated bibliography, mostly on the topics of the politics of science and environmentalism. I get the feeling that a technothriller isn't really what Crichton wanted to write. He wanted to do a reasoned polemic. Instead we get all his research inserted into a plot that reads like some old Saturday afternoon short, with scheming Nazis or Commies. And this complete with characters representing the likes of Ralph Nader--no, I don't like him either, but as evil mastermind . . . well, that stretched credulity. He isn't good enough to be a evil mastermind. Ralph Nader is just a puffed-up schmo. Underserving of villainhood on this scale, in both senses.

If you check out Amazon, you'll see the Dan Brown fans love the book, the environmentalists hate it because they disagree with it. Both camps are wrong: the book is horrible, the ideas are . . . worth having a look at.

To oversimplify, Crichton is taking up Bjorn Lomborg's side of the Skeptical Environmentalist debate. Lomborg's ideas are provocative and hard to summarize in a short piece (I will try to later), but essentially he questions the idea that the world is in a general environmental decline, calling into question a wide range of environmentalist worries, including the loss of species and habitats and global warming.

A group of scientists including EO Wilson led the counter-attack against Lomborg's questions in Scientific American (which has behaved "shamefully" over the course of the controversy, according to Crichton).


If you'd like to read the extensive response from the SciAm team, click here.

Here is Lomborg's blow by blow response.

And SciAm's response to the response.

And so on. More is to be found at the SciAm site and at Lomborg's.

Anyhow, this stuff is far from uninteresting, and Lomborg is far from alone in calling some environmentalist predictions of doom greatly exaggerated. Certainly worth a look and a thought or two.

Coincidentally, I am also reading a book by Stephen Budiansky, who was one of Lomborg's important defenders during the controversy. It's called Nature's Keepers and it deals with the non-scientific wing of the environmental movement, and their links with romanticism, and religious, political and dietary reform movements.

Funny thing, everything I've been reading lately seems to tie into a great whole--here comes creeping wholism!--even when I am trying to change the subject I'm reading about. I started reading Lasch just for the hell of it (I ran across Culture of Narcissism in a thrift shop), and it turned out to have a lot to say about the foreign policy stuff I was writiing about before the election and with some of the anti-modernist trends I was worried about in Wendell Berry. Budiansky I'd read because I love books about codes (he wrote Battle of Wits the story of WWII code-breaking) and I just stumbled upon his writings about those I'll call the Berry-ites (Budiansky never mentions Berry). And Budiansky has something to say about another of my interests--theories of ancient goddess worship. My favorite of these being Robert Graves' writings on this controversial topic.

The Crichton book is less of an accident, but now that seems to be leading me back to another of my little pet issues: the "science wars" of the nineties and the whole struggle over what science is and what it should be doing.

Perhaps one day I will find a really new subject to write about, one that doesn't tie back into my already existing interests. We'll see.

OPK