Crichton Talks the Talk

A few speeches Michael Crichton has made are up on his website. I read his autobiography many years ago, was aware of his HMS background and some research, but didn't know he was actively thinking and speaking on the relationship between science and the media. Good stuff. I'm glad he doesn't talk about his desert walks, though.

Some threads that run though several speeches: science and the scientific method is powerful, but its impact is eroding. Something like SETI, which is based on equations with indeterminate variables, breeds excessive modeling, leading to predictions of nuclear winter and global warming, both of which are dependent on so many factors as to be essentially unpredictable (as Bill Bryson's book attests). Some science is now done by consensus and by media campaigns, which hurts the people and hurts science in the long run. And since when has consensus ever been good for science? Worth remembering.

Still, it's important to have real scientists getting the word out, explaining results, not letting popularizers dumb it down, and not letting people leap to conclusions. There's plenty to analyze and put into perspective without getting speculative and prospective.

Some lines worth quoting:
"And much of what politicians say is not so much a prediction as an attempt to make it come true. It's argument disguised as analysis. But it doesn't really persuade anybody. Because most people can see through it. "

From another speech:
Of course, we can always count on a good word from Nova—but that's only reaching 8.5 million, or 3.3%. Internet, you say? Only 18% of homes wired. And how they use the net is hard to assess. Even huge media events—ER on television, or Jurassic Park at the movies—will only be seen by twenty to forty million people, or eight to fifteen percent of the domestic audience. That means five out of six Americans never see it. The perception of an all-pervasive media that reaches everybody is simply not accurate. No media speaks directly to the majority of Americans.

Let's be clear: this is a change. In 1985, 60 Minutes gave a misleading report on Audi's braking system, and Audi lost 80% of its American business. Although Audi subsequently won the relevant lawsuit, its business took a decade to rebuild. But no television report would have that impact today. Nobody'd believe it. They'd think the cars were rigged, the interviews paid for, the reporters biased, the story one-sided. Every major network has had scandals and fraud and firings and embarrassment.

In this matter of personal dealings with the press, science is far behind the times. Thirty years ago, when I published The Andromeda Strain, authors didn't talk to the press. That would be selling. It undermined our dignity as intellectuals. Back then, the major figures of business, finance, and the universities behaved similarly. And so did scientists. Even movie directors didn't give interviews; that was a job for actors.
Finally, I would rethink the advancement of science. Too often, the advancement of science has meant the advancement of scientists. More money for research, more spending for big projects. The public correctly perceives this as lobbying.