03 March 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 90

"Everyone has an agenda. Except me."
-- Michael Crichton

This is the final Book Club meeting for Michael Crichton's State of Fear and a spoiler-free post on the Author's Message, appendices and bibliography. Thanks so much to Amy, Bat, Bob, Christopher, Jess, LTG, Melanie, R, and Sheila for participating in previous meetings, and to Brandon for including Meeting 88 among one of his Notable Notes and Linkable Links! Thanks also to the commenter who admitted that he has been staying away from the blog precisely because he doesn't want to have to deal with this book: he has managed to become the most intriguing element of this whole experience. I mean, WHY???

There are so many more things about State of Fear to discuss, but if I touched on everything worthy of mention, I'd probably take half a year to get through the novel. And the abstaining commenter would never come back to my blog. =P So I hope that this final post on the matter will do.

Pages 624 to 672

Oh, if only I had found State of Fear three years ago, when I told my brothers that global warming was just a theory and not a fact . . . and they came home from school telling me that they had said so to their Science teacher, who replied that anyone who thinks it's not really happening should "look around" and see the truth.

After that, my skepticism became a running joke with them. Cue-card Boy was especially tickled when I told him that one reason I had lost enthusiasm for a certain MG/YA series that I had started with Camera Man was that someone had spoiled the ending for me: it turned out that the great mission that the young heroes were given was . . . you guessed it . . . to slow down global warming. And not even by using their superpowers, which would at least be half-assedly cool (Pun subconsciously intended), but by giving a speech to the US congress. Even Comrade Captain Planet and the Planeteers tried harder than that, almost distracting us from the huge hole in the cartoon's plot that dwarfs the one in the ozone layer.

While it's nice to know that Michael Crichton could have had my back, had I decided to go head to head with Miss Science Teacher, I admit that global warming isn't a hill I want to die on. It's enough for me to learn that I'm not crazy it's indeed a theory and that there are certain questions we should ask before accepting science reporting as accurate. I'm also glad that there's a bibliography which gives those who are passionate about this issue more rabbit trails to follow.

* * * * *

Appendix I also provides great food for thought, as Crichton lays down the parallels between the modern environmentalist movement and the eugenics movement of one century ago.

. . . in retrospect, three points stand out. First, despite the construction of Cold Springs Harbour Laboratory, despite the efforts of universities and the pleadings of lawyers, there was no scientific basis for eugenics. In fact, nobody at the time knew what a gene really was. The movement was able to proceed because it employed vague terms never rigourously defined. "Feeble-mindedness" could mean anything from poverty and illiteracy to epilepsy. Similarly, there was no clear definition of "degenerate" or "unfit."

Second, the eugenics movement was really a social programme masquerading as a scientific one. What drove it was concern about immigration and racism and undesirable people moving into one's neighbourhood or country. Once again, vague terminology helped conceal what was really going on.

Third, and most distressing, the scientific establishment in both the United States and Germany did not mount any sustained protest. Quite the contrary . . . German scientists adjusted their research interests to the new policies. And those few who did not adjust disappeared.

Does it seem like an over-the-top comparison? The idea that we should take steps to reduce the number of "feeble-minded" people in society ultimately led to the gassing of millions. Next to it, the idea that we should take steps to reduce our carbon emissions seems rather benign. But something else Crichton tackles in State of Fear is the connection between high-minded environmentalism in developed countries and crushing poverty in the "feebler" parts of the world. The former has "the effect or preserving the economic advantages of the West" and can be considered "modern imperialism toward the developing world." The whole idea is that it's better to force millions of people to live in mud huts than to allow them to engage in activities that would cause pollution. The effects are a little slower than those of gassing, but that doesn't make it less of a human sacrifice.

Yes, that human sacrifice thing again. (No, I won't let it go.) Crichton sums up the environmentalist movement in the line, "We got ours and we don't want you to get yours, because you'll cause too much pollution." I would respectfully amend that to read, "We got ours and we don't want you get yours because we need you to pay for our past sins of pollution."

* * * * *

Another point of comparison is the acceptance of both eugenics and global warming in the children's media of their respective periods. A few months ago, after enjoying a reread of Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs, I thought I'd make a project of her novels the way I had done with those of Frances Hodgson Burnett, continuing with the sequel Dear Enemy. I got halfway through it when I made myself stop, not because I was feeling disgusted at the narrator's attitude toward "feeble-minded" people, but because I wanted to read a complete edition that included Webster's own illustrations. And it will take some time before my local bookstore can get me a copy. If I'm going to study the propaganda of a philosophy I disagree with, then I'd like it to be good propaganda. 

Which reminds me that several critics have argued that State of Fear is bad propaganda. Indeed, there are more articles explaining how Crichton got things wrong than articles corroborating his footnotes and conclusions. (Think: the Catholic blogosphere's hysterical response to Dan Brown's DaVinci Code.)

Now, I know that I promised, in a previous post, that we'd eventually discuss "the science" . . . but I find that I'm really not up to it. Lacking both scientific training and a desire to conduct my own review of the data, I admit that I'm mostly trusting our esteemed novelist--and that if someone else were to write a readable book with good rebuttals to the points made in this one, I'd revise my thinking. But you know what? I think Crichton would have, too. For the point really isn't the data, but the moral. And it hasn't escaped my notice that the criticisms of State of Fear steer clear of its moral that "the intermixing of science and politics is a bad combination."

Even if all the unbiased data in the world supported the global warming theory, it would still be a non sequitur that certain policymakers and not others should have greater political power.

Many thanks again for reading along . . . even if you didn't! =P 

Discussion Questions:

1) What other social movement of our age do you think future generations will consider with equal parts embarrassment and disbelief? Conversely, which social movement do you think they will be glad we started?
2) If science doesn't (and indeed can't) decide what the policies should be, then what does? 
3) Which of the books Crichton recommends in the bibliography would you be most interested in reading?


Belfry Bat said...

1) It's not that I think it'll happen, but I could easily believe than in a couple hundred years there won't be even pretend republican democracies and the project from the last 120 years or so of exporting the language of democracy will be seen as a colosal waste of effort and time and life, not to mention a grandiose exercise in ignoring history. As Crichton writes in another novel, "old habits die hard", and 120 years isn't all that old compared to most people's habits of being governed.

I do hope enough of the world eventually agrees with the Church on the nature and dignity and extent of human life (and on all things!). I don't know if two hundred years is enough time for that to happen; but since I don't trust the weather forcast for a week... who knows?

2) Oh dear... Fear And Trembling, I think. It's not that science can't decide good policy, it's that ongoing technical research science is the wrong science and instead the long record of history should be more closely studied. Anyone who thinks their particular hare-brained scheme for social reform is new hasn't read of Amalek. Or Sparta. Or what the Cathars actually did. And in all such cases we also know what happened to those experiments.

Except for living chimaera. Cloning and chimaera are the only sins modernity has managed to invent for itself.

3) When I have a copy of this book (and I'm also going to go back through all these posts in order when I manage to read it!) I'll get back to you.

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, incidentally, since it's another book I don't have, does DaVinci Code have footnotes?

Enbrethiliel said...


1) That's a good example! Paradoxical as it might sound, there's real imperialism in the exporting of democracy, too.

Which is the Crichton novel in which he says that "old habits die hard"?

2) What do you mean when you say that "ongoing technical research science is the wrong science"? When I read that, I thought of all the research, resources and effort that go into figuring out how to extend fertility into one's forties, if need be. But this may not be what you're referring to.

I also want an adverb more precise than "closely" to describe the way we should study the record of history. There seem to be a lot of people with detailed knowledge of what the Nazis did and the conviction that it was wrong, but only the fuzziest ideas of how to prevent the same catastrophes from happening on our own watch. (That is, some people seem to read history as if they were reading Twilight. And they conclude: Nazis are evil and Edward is hot.) Then there's the issue of the record being compromised. As Crichton pointed out in his discussion of eugenics, after World War II, "nobody" had been a supporter of this movement. It became too embarrassing--or was rationalised as too inconsequential--for biographers to mention in otherwise faithful accounts. Similarly, good luck finding people who lived before WWII and whom we would describe as anti-Semitic. But I guess "Germans" is considered acceptable shorthand for them--which must reassure non-Germans that they would never do such things.

3) When you come back after reading State of Fear, give Meeting 89 some comment love, okay? =)

4) As far as I remember, The DaVinci Code does not have endnotes.

/dev/null said...

If closely won't do, how about carefully?

Yes, it's true we won't find many helpful remarks about, say, Vlad TepeŇ°, and at the least today's cathars and other gnostics have run a long way with their "hermeneutic of suspicion" when reading Church history.


Of course extending fertility into one's forties is reasonable if you also extend your vigour into your seventies... which may well be reasonable, and even follow from the same exercises; but it's something done in a private way: it has its natural subsidiarity built-in. What I'm thinking of in saying "ongoing research science is the wrong science" is that unsettled science (unsettlable science all the more) is not a reliable prudential aid. Silly me thought of "public policy" when you said "the policies" in question 2.

Enbrethiliel said...


You were right to read "the policies" as "public policy" the first time. I just wanted to know what you meant by "ongoing technical research science" and "the wrong science." Now I'm also wondering what this "unsettled science" is. =P

Belfry Bat said...

(Oh dear! I'm losing track of my personae! ... you know it's me, though, right?)

Belfry Bat said...

For instances of unsettled (and perhaps unsettlable) science: take weather. We have fairly convincing models of air circulation; we have slightly-less convincing models of precipitation sitting on top of the circulation models (and partly feeding-back into them). The precipitation model is, I think, unsettled science, because there's more to snow and rain than just thermodynamics: a lot of snow aparently nucleates around airborne microbes that can also be trouble for farmers when they colonize the ground, but we still need the rain; there are other factors we haven't sorted-out yet, affecting the transitions between clear humid air, cloud, and rain.

The circulation model is definitely unsettled science in two senses: there are known details we usually omit (and so we don't know quite how they affect things) such as urban terrain; but also we don't really know if the model itself is sensible. It really is very convincing, but it might be worse than wrong --- it might be nonsense. Even if it's sensible it's still possible that it's got a built-in unpredictability theorem, which would put it into the "unsettleable" category.

But the models are good enough for (e.g.) huricane tracking and tornado watches (usually), which means they're good enough for public policy as far as warnings and proclaiming state of civil emergency are concerned.

My Home and Native Land has enough land that we could (I'm sure) deliberately stockpile extra fresh water, if we knew how to plan for where it's going to fall and where it will be needed --- but we actually can't plan these things very well. We know that the Red River will flood (badly) every now and then, and that the St. Lawrence around Montreal will run too shallow for shipping every now and then; but that's actually not saying much.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat, I think one of the problems we're having is that I think you're using commonly accepted terms, while you're just putting pretty phrases together. For instance, when I asked you what "unsettled science" was, I assumed it was something I could ask any scientist--the way I'd be able to ask any scientist what a "Type II error" is.

(It's like when you brought up the idea of "overvaluing dollars." I had a student of Economics write to me wondering which economist you were quoting because he had never run across that particular phrase, which you were using with such authority, in any of his lectures or texts.)

This isn't to say that the concepts behind the terms you're using don't exist--just that 99.99999% of people probably call it something else. And it would help me enormously if you used the common names.

Belfry Bat said...

I'm in a bit of a quandary, then, because while I admit the euphony is important to me, I'm also trying to be as precise as I can, and furthermore (so far as I know) there aren't "commonly accepted" names for the things I'm trying to name. Scientists do talk of various questions being "settled" or not; they do use the word "science" to mean what is known, what is unknown but interesting, the method, the endeavour as a whole.

I don't know of a good, general word for "unsettlable", in the context of general scientific research. "Intractable", oddly enough, means something else. Actually, while "science" is older than the Royal Society, the fact of well-posed-but-unsolvable problems only came to light around 1930.

Sheila said...

Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to get a clear answer about global warming. You would think it would be simple enough to just find the numbers and check them, but even the numbers aren't the same from source to source! It doesn't help that all the pro-climate-change sources I can find appear to have been written for idiots, because it's dumbed down. I don't think this is a disproof of them, because most articles that pop up on a google search about, say, breast cancer are dumbed down too. Alternative science is much more willing to cite papers and quote stats than the mainstream kind. But it is annoying.

Where's a website where both the believers and skeptics can give their opinions and actually respond to one another? They just can't be found. I'm thinking my library might have more useful information than I can find on the internet... it's not often that I say that!

Meanwhile the scientific level of the discourse I hear on the topic usually doesn't rise any further than, "Look at all this snow! So much for global warming!" I may as well say, "I ate an entire pan of brownies today and I'm X pounds! So much for junk food making you fat!"

1. Hmmmmm.... maybe Keynesian economics? Though I suppose that's wishful thinking. For the second half, I'd vote feminism, and make everyone mad. But seriously, is it a bad thing that wife-beating is now illegal?

2. There's a lot to be said for nature and tradition. It is worrisome to me that the industrial age and the burning of fossil fuels is such a tiny blip on the radar of the Earth's history .... even if it's not CO2, what other effects can it be having that we won't know about until it's too late? That's the cave-woman side of me talking .... suspicious of any change without a thousand years' testing behind it. Of course we'd never "progress" without trying new things. But must we try them so unrestrainedly that the old ways are abandoned and all but forgotten by the time we remember to consider what side effects the new change might be having?

DMS said...

A fascinating post and a great conclusion to the discussion of State of Fear. I like the way you rewrote the quote from Crichton. If anything the book makes you think about the environment, what is happening and some of the reasons behind policies and practices. One thing I know for sure- whether one believe in global warming or not- we should be good to our planet. It is our home. Littering and destroying things or polluting isn't make our planet a healthier place now. Doing what we can to keep the air we breathe clean, has to be a good thing.

Thanks for leading this discussion. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- I think it was the "unsettlable" that threw me off. On the other hand, every time I google "unsettled science," only resources on climate change come up, which made me think the term was also a fad.

Sheila -- It's interesting that we have started using terms associated with religion to discuss scientific subjects. If something splits people into into camps of "believers" and "skeptics," perhaps that should be our first red flag!

1) Keynesian economics is another good choice. I can't help thinking that we'll get it when China collapses--but I don't know how long that will take.

As Bat pointed out to me in another thread, "feminism" is such a slippery term that we don't always know what the other means by it. When I hear it, I don't think of wife-beating becoming illegal but of a rise in divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and single motherhood. It's possible that we're talking about different things.

2) I remember G.K. Chesterton pointing out that you can't measure progress over time if you've lost sight of the original state of things. There's too much change for the sake of change.

Jess -- I'm totally on board with keeping my surroundings as green as possible and cutting back on litter. Thanks for joining the discussion! =)

Sheila said...

I think we conflate the sexual revolution with feminism too much. They happened more or less at the same time, but there's nothing specifically associated with women's rights about sleeping around. Maybe people thought so at the time, but it seems clear enough now that women have gotten the worst of that deal.

Perhaps instead of "feminist," I should call myself "a person who believes that men and women are created equal and deserving of equal rights," but that gets a little cumbersome. Still, I'd offend fewer people, I suppose. Radical feminists get angry that I use "their" word, and Catholics think I probably demonstrate topless with slogans drawn on my body. (I don't, as it happens.)

Enbrethiliel said...


One reason they are taken together is that women who are all for the sexual revolution often say that men have been sleeping around for years without anyone having a problem with that, so it's nothing but sexist to say that women shouldn't sleep around, either.

But labels do start to take on many additional meanings over time, which makes communication difficult. Maybe Bat is right to coin his own phrases! LOL!

Sheila said...

Oh, it's entirely sexist. Time to socially shun men who sleep around! Well, in Catholic circles, they DO get shunned, so there you are. One standard for everybody.

(I'm rather kidding -- I think the *behavior* should be excoriated by people in general, but I also think that we shouldn't call people nasty names because of their past sexual failings. Perhaps that is too subtle a job to expect culture to succeed at.)