04 February 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 83

"Within any important issue, there are always aspects no one is willing to discuss."
-- George Orwell

Oh, of all the epigraphs to choose . . . The above is so generic that it needs the attribution to Orwell to pack a halfway decent punch--which it doesn't deliver anyway. 

By the way, did anyone else try looking it up for the context? I did, and found Wikitalk's quote page for George Orwell suggesting that there is no source for it apart from State of Fear! Why do you suppose that is? Hmmmmm . . .

Pages 1 to 100

So far, our reading plan in the sand is working! =) It turns out that halfway through "Akamai" is the perfect place for a pit stop, if only because it's the most logical point for us to compare the assumptions we probably didn't know we had when we started. Peter Evans has just been asked what he thinks global warming is . . . and he is unable to define it correctly. Despite his insistence that "everybody knows" about it and how serious it is, he himself has to be set straight . . .

[Balder said:] "Believe me, I wish it were otherwise. But in fact, global warming is the theory that increased levels of carbon dioxide and certain other gases are causing an increase in the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere because of the so-called 'greenhouse effect.'"

"Well, okay," Evans said, "that's a more exact definition, but . . ."

"Mr. Evans, you yourself believe in global warming, I take it? . . . Believe in it strongly?"

"Sure. Everybody does."

"When you have a strongly held belief, don't you believe it's important to express that belief accurately?"

And the litigator John "Bald Eagle" Balder wins the first State of Fear readalong post for sounding like he was educated by Dominicans! 

So how would you have done if he had been grilling you? Would you--could you--have come close to that definition? If so, then you have my admiration; but I'm willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of Crichton readers had the same experience Evans (and I) did. We've been talking about "global warming" for years without being able to define it properly and without knowing that we didn't know. How embarrassing . . .

What other things that we're so sure of do you think we don't know we really don't know about? 

* * * * *

Another great part is the heated argument between the environmental activist Nick Drake and the geologist Per Einarsson. I found it quite easy to take a side--which is more than a little ironic, given that the issue at hand is scientific impartiality. But I do think that Drake's suggestion that Einarsson word his latest paper in a certain way is flat out shady--and I can't help admiring Einarsson's decision to state his findings as accurately as possible even if it means he will lose millions in funding.

But then Drake gets to explain where he's coming from and it's worth some cognitive dissonance on my part . . .

"Scientists can't adopt that lofty attitude anymore. They can't say, 'I do the research, and I don't care how it's used.' That's out of date. It's irresponsible. Even in a seemingly obscure field like glacier geology. Because, like it or not, we're in the middle of a war--a global war of information versus misinformation. The war is fought on many battlegrounds. Newspaper op-eds. Television reports. Scientific journals. Websites, conferences, classrooms--and courtrooms, too, if it comes to that . . . We have truth on our side, but we're outnumbered and out-funded. Today, the environmental movement is David battling Goliath. And Goliath is Aventis and Alcatel, Humana and GE, BP and Bayer, Shell and Glaxo-Wellcome--huge, global, corporate. These people are the implacable enemies of our planet, and Per Einarsson, out there on his glacier, is irresponsible to pretend it isn't happening."

Now, I agree with Evans that Drake is exaggerating, but I would like to consider the latter's general point. When there are parties who can and will use your impartial research to further causes which may hurt millions of innocent people, should you care about that? More to the point, should you take concrete steps to prevent it?

War imagery having been invoked, can a parallel be drawn between "irresponsible" scientists and factory owners who don't care that middlemen are selling their products to hostile forces? Or how about comparisons to artists: remember those musicians who were horrified to learn that their recordings were used to torture prisoners of war? Of course, it would be totally unreasonable for the latter to stop making music just because a tiny minority might use it in inhumane ways: this Atlas isn't shrugging. =P

I can't think of a single good reason for a scientist to hurt the quality of his "product," which is accurate research--not even the possibility that it may be used in destructive ways. But does this just mean that I have not learned the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  

* * * * *

Finally, how are you handling the technical details? State of Fear is my first Science-Fiction Thriller, and I've been worried that half the stuff would fly over my head because I'm not a graduate student at MIT. So far, however, the only chapter I've reread twice and still not been able to figure out is the one about IDEC and Akamai.

I think that the organisation is planting data online in order to track the kind of people who'd be looking for it and to create profiles of them based on their other searches . . . but I'm really not sure! Any help from those who know better would be greatly appreciated. =)

Discussion Questions:

1) When was the last time you learned how little you actually know? How was this a valuable lesson to you?
2) How responsible should scientists be for the findings they publish?


Belfry Bat said...

Still haven't got the book, but I get the sense of very few spoilers in the chosen snippets. Is that about right?

The thing with Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and, if it comes to that, Halifax NS, for no-one would have aglomerated that much explosive power if some clever engineers hadn't found a way to "stabilize" it) is that not only did the scientists figure out how to do a despicable thing, but they themselves then went and did it. They had already lost that particular battle before they went to Los Alamos.

1) I am a graduate student. For eight years, now.

2) Whoever publishes is responsible at the least that he not publish as if true anything he knows or believes to be false. If you publish that some thing is a dull waste of time, some other scientist will consider it his duty to try it for himself, and make certain.

It's one of the difficulties of science-as-such that anything one researcher can discover another can --- that is the point, and much of the sport is in being first --- but in particular, if trinitrotoluene is a slow self-oxidizing high explosive here, then it is so over there as well, and hiding the fact is at best a waiting game. And publishing results of this sort (such-and-such is dangerous) serves not only the evil purpose of instucting the destructive, but also the good purpose of guiding the unwary.

Here's an example: molten metals (esp. in groups 1 and 2) can reduce water --- that is, they can burn in water; so you can think of nefarious things to do to someone's galvanized ship at sea, or you can improve safety codes for chemical laboratories: for a metal fire, use sand and not water (and not even CO2, sometimes)! Don't even play with ClF3.

Enbrethiliel said...


At this point, I could probably reveal every plot point and not give away anything significant. Crichton is still planting the clues.

I don't think anyone disputes the integrity of the discoveries themselves or the need for papers to be truthful, but the issue is science as a political tool. That is, it isn't about the light being on or off, but about someone who will put a coloured shade over it after it has been turned it on.

Take all the neuroscientists who say that we can predict the development of psychopathy in children as young as two or three years old, just by looking at genetics and environment. I can imagine that feminists would want the research papers to be worded in such a way that mothers don't feel guilty for working outside the home when their children are babies. I can also see social workers worrying that drawing attention to the poor conditions in which second-generation immigrants are born and raised might get an entire group of "foreign" children branded as potential psychopaths and further alienated from mainstream society. (This second scenario is based on an editorial I read about living conditions among immigrants in a certain European country. When some activists tried to get the news to report on it, they were told that it would only get the anti-immigrant parties more votes. Because there's an easier way to clean up a ghetto.)

PS -- Perhaps your answer to my Shooting Gallery question should have been the Iditarod race! =P

Belfry Bat said...

Well, I think I'll quote Feynman and say "I don't think [these neuroscientists] know what they're talking about": there isn't a controlled, impartial experiment on children in daycares (e.g.) that can been running long enough to find which ones turn into psychopaths...

As for the feminists (as long as we're talking about Dominicans, can I mention that that's an ambiguous word?) and the insulationists... We're definitely in the realm of ideas have consequences on the one hand, and the truth will set you free on the other. Of course, if the (repeatable, solid) science really does mean that children need parenting within some particular bounds, then the scientists shouldn't leave that out; if the soot from all the coal-fires in London make for opaque noxious fog half the days of the year, it isn't sense to prioritize the question "what about the livelihood of coliers?" There are other uses for coal (even other ways to use coal to heat all the homes in London) and other things people can be doing.

At the same time, I know of no science suggesting that scientists make better statesmen than the rest, and plenty of anecdote that some scientist-statesmen have been exceptionally awful. At the least, when scientists try to pre-spin or spinproof their research findings, they are leaving the realm of science, and possibly their own realm of competence.

love the girls said...

Miss E. writes : "If so, then you have my admiration"

Do I still have your admiration if I tell you it's about the only part of the subject I do know?

Mr. Bat writes : "If you publish that some thing is a dull waste of time, some other scientist will consider it his duty to try it for himself, and make certain."

Why would you expect differently? Dull waste of time is scientist pornography, they can't resist it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- I understand why you want to discuss the things we actually have evidence for, but since State of Fear is currently hinting that there is actually no solid evidence for the global warming theory, the coal fires of London (or more recently, Beijing), which we can be sure about, aren't the best parallel. They would be, if "everybody knew" that certain coal fires were dangerous and then a scientist published data which showed no correlation between air pollution and respiratory disease in another coal-burning area. What we're discussing is what happens when something "everybody knows" (and society counts on) is threatened, and I'm afraid the only examples I can think of are in the hypothetical realm.

Such as the example from brave new neuroscience! So let's say that the belief which "everybody knows"--that is, that no one can reasonably predict that a three-year-old will grow up to be a psychopath--is called into question by a controlled, impartial and repeatable study. And let's add that the neuroscientist behind the study has reason to believe, given the political climate, that his work will be used by Big Pharma to convince the government that "high risk" children should be on psychiatric medication when they are as young as two or three years old. I'm on your side with respect to "spin," but I wonder if there is anything a scientist could ethically do about such a situation.

As for "feminism," I had (ironically?) assumed "everyone" would define it as an ideology which believes that women and men are "equal," but like other heresies, of course it would scuttle away from the light! But if you really do have Dominican issues with my choice of words, I will let you suggest an alternative. =) What description would you find more appropriate for a special-interest group that doesn't want women to feel guilty for working outside the home when their children are babies?

LTG -- At least you got closer than I did! =P

* * * * *

By the way, Bat and LTG, I'm not sure what kind of bromance you're carrying on in my comboxes, though I do ROFL just thinking about it. I only hope I won't need to ask you two "to get a room," if you take my meaning.

Belfry Bat said...

En, there you are describing communism, the socialized slavery to work! I might be a "feminist" in that I am a realist --- that is, I believe women to be human, and in particular created in the Image and Likeness of God, and also that men and women are different, suffering in their particular natures differently and having different needs, and therefore we their neighbours owe to them duties different in character but not different in solemnity or dignity.


What a scientist (or any good philosopher) is supposed to do with any claim of fact impinging on policy is to discern whether the claims themselves are true; if there is an induction from evidence to fact, the evidence and the induction must be found sound: and if the proposed policy is use or imposition of a psychoactive pharmaceutical, then the implicit claim is "prepsychotic children are better and happier with this drug", and not "psychosis can be detected in three-year-olds".


LTG: expect otherwise? Why would I? But your theoretical model seems overwrought.

Enbrethiliel said...


The meaning of words may evolve over time, but in the case of the word "feminism," I think that all modifications have been due to spin.

If you look at the roots of feminism (Look! No need for quotation marks when we're talking about the actual thing!), you'll see that they are communism (and before that, protestantism). If you want to keep describing yourself as a "feminist," I can't stop you, but I trust that you won't go spewing Marxist propaganda on me. =)

As for what we are actually discussing, I agree with everything you've said, but it doesn't seem to include any action. We could lock ourselves in a Tardis and do all the discerning and induction in the world (which is, incidentally, what I like to do on Tennant Thursdays), and meanwhile, a million boys who might have had to wait until adolescence to be put on Ritalin get Zyprexa before their First Holy Communion. (Just being dramatic.)

That is, your proposed alternative isn't actually an alternative because it's not in the same "class" (Sorry--don't know the actual term) as what our hypothetical neuroscientist is doing. Perhaps he has already been in the Tardis and come to the exact same conclusion you have, which is the very reason he decided to spin his paper.

In short, when I'm asking what a scientist could do, I'm asking what a scientist could do.

Belfry Bat said...

(I don't actually ever describe myself as a feminist; but I also know people who do and aren't really.)

((And just what you imagine my rĂ´le to be in LTG trying to convince me that English isn't his native language, I don't know))

Enbrethiliel said...


Are you asking? Because I do have an answer to that.

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, once a scientist discerns that a neurosomething is just aiming for a lock on the minors-without-discerning-psychoactive market, we tell the policymaker "these proposals are full of what no-one should be full of, and that fellow who has got your elbow should be imprisoned for several years, to contemplate and do penance for the wrongness of his attempt at a glorious fraud". We could remind them that there were already laws requiring patient-or-guardian consent and opposed to frivolous intimidation-by-long-words. We can give lengthy public lectures on the distinction between science and nonsense, and suggest universities have all their students take full-year courses in Thomistic philosophy; but we can't make everyone scientists, or even be quite sensible.

Again, it isn't really given to scientists to be good statesmen, though it might be a fair requirement that statesmen should have some science (and religion, and virtue, and practical wisdom...)

Enbrethiliel said...


Dealing with the policymakers and the big corporations is one thing. If the mass media gets hold of the study, I can also imagine individual single mothers thinking their little boys are psychos and having them institutionalised. But of course I don't expect scientists to be held accountable for every last person's reading of their data.

Anyway, now that you've answered my question, do you want me to answer what may be yours?

Belfry Bat said...

... but my question was a joke ...

Enbrethiliel said...


I didn't realise . . .

DMS said...

One thing that I really like about Crichton is that he has a lot of science in his books, but he explains it in a way that I understand. I have read a lot about global warming, so I feel that I could give a good definition of it, along with examples (if pressed).

I am always amazed when people use science politically and choose not to look at some of the facts to prove their point.

Interesting post- as always. Lots to think about!

cyurkanin said...

I love that Crichton inserted a fake quote of his own design in order to prove his point, almost subliminally. Can you recall another example of this being done? I'm trying but can't.

cyurkanin said...

*to add to the above, I mean in "novel" form and not as pure propaganda.

Enbrethiliel said...


Jess -- With the exception of Kenner and Thapa's visit to IDEC, State of Fear is turning out to be a wonderfully easy read. I have to concentrate harder than usual at some parts, but Crichton's skill makes them worth it.

Christopher -- I can imagine someone like Jose Luis Borges, Umberto Eco or Jostein Gaarder doing it . . . but no, I can't think of another example off the top of my head.

Crichton's use of a fake quote here is especially brilliant. =)

Belfry Bat said...

It may be worth pointing out that "George Orwell" is also a pseudonym, so sometimes it can be freely stolen.

Enbrethiliel said...


As usual, I have no idea what you're trying to say!

cyurkanin said...

The name "George Orwell" is also formed from the magic anagram "Egg Roller Woe" recently discovered during the restoration of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Not THAT ceiling, the other one.

Belfry Bat said...

I think I'm saying, there, that since "George Orwell" isn't George Orwell's real name, it is only slightly less true to say that "George Orwell" uttered the epigram above than to say that "George Orwell" wrote the novel 1984.

Enbrethiliel said...


Christopher -- I can never match your stuff, but I can say that when I told my students (back in my high school teaching days) that Orwell's real name was Eric Arthur Blair, they all sighed in disappointment that he had chosen the less romantic name. =P

Bat -- But Mr. Blair didn't choose the name "George Orwell" specifically to make a point about anything he was saying in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

And I doubt that the fakeness of the name itself was a primary consideration for Crichton.