Good Interred With Their Bones Dept.: Michael Crichton


One of my news grabbers found an article on environmentalism and religion at a Live Journal site, an answer to a speech by Michael Crichton on environmentalism as religion.  Crichton’s speech was delivered in 2003 to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, a venerable old institution for giving a soap box to doers and thinkers.

Crichton’s speech started out with promise:

I have been asked to talk about what I consider the most important challenge facing mankind, and I have a fundamental answer. The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance.

We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we’re told exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems. Every one of us has a sense of the world, and we all know that this sense is in part given to us by what other people and society tell us; in part generated by our emotional state, which we project outward; and in part by our genuine perceptions of reality. In short, our struggle to determine what is true is the struggle to decide which of our perceptions are genuine, and which are false because they are handed down, or sold to us, or generated by our own hopes and fears.

As an example of this challenge, I want to talk today about environmentalism.

The promise was short-lived.

Crichton described his learnings from studying anthropology, including an observation that religions always arise, and cannot be stamped out.  From there he makes an astounding leap, to claim that environmentalism is religion.  From that failed leap, the speech rapidly deteriorates.  He adopts tenets of American Christian and political fundamentalism, rapidly following up with a disavowal of fundamentalism, as if to try to hide what he’s done, or deny it, at least for himself:

So I can tell you some facts. I know you haven’t read any of what I am about to tell you in the newspaper, because newspapers literally don’t report them. I can tell you that DDT is not a carcinogen and did not cause birds to die and should never have been banned. I can tell you that the people who banned it knew that it wasn’t carcinogenic and banned it anyway. I can tell you that the DDT ban has caused the deaths of tens of millions of poor people, mostly children, whose deaths are directly attributable to a callous, technologically advanced western society that promoted the new cause of environmentalism by pushing a fantasy about a pesticide, and thus irrevocably harmed the third world. Banning DDT is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the twentieth century history of America. We knew better, and we did it anyway, and we let people around the world die and didn’t give a damn.

I can tell you that second hand smoke is not a health hazard to anyone and never was, and the EPA has always known it. I can tell you that the evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents would ever admit. I can tell you the percentage the US land area that is taken by urbanization, including cities and roads, is 5%. I can tell you that the Sahara desert is shrinking, and the total ice of Antarctica is increasing. I can tell you that a blue-ribbon panel in Science magazine concluded that there is no known technology that will enable us to halt the rise of carbon dioxide in the 21st century. Not wind, not solar, not even nuclear. The panel concluded a totally new technology-like nuclear fusion-was necessary, otherwise nothing could be done and in the meantime all efforts would be a waste of time. They said that when the UN IPCC reports stated alternative technologies existed that could control greenhouse gases, the UN was wrong.

I can, with a lot of time, give you the factual basis for these views, and I can cite the appropriate journal articles not in whacko magazines, but in the most prestigious science journals, such as Science and Nature. But such references probably won’t impact more than a handful of you, because the beliefs of a religion are not dependent on facts, but rather are matters of faith. Unshakeable belief.

From the promising start of claiming we must be skeptical and carefully sort out what is true from what is not true, he rapidly plunges from the stratosphere into the depths of the ocean of misinformation.  Count the errors:

  1. Newspapers have been regular carriers of claims that restrictions on DDT are unnecessary.  You won’t find such claims in science journals, in fact — they appear almost without exception in newspapers.  Crichton is wrong about where you’d learn that DDT is harmless.  You can’t learn it from people who know.
  2. DDT is a “probable human carcinogen” listed by every cancer-fighting agency on Earth.  Fortunately for humans, it appears to be weakly carcinogenic.  Recent studies indicate it’s devious in its carcinogenicity, too — it gives cancers not to the people who were exposed, but to their children.  Research into this path is only about a decade old.  Recent studies confirm carcinogenicity in humans.  Carcinogenicity in almost every other animal exposed has been long known.  It is highly unlikely that a compound known to cause cancer in every mammal tested, would not be carcinogenic in humans.  Again, you can’t learn this stuff in science journals.  You’ll have to learn it as dogma from cranks and crackpots.
  3. DDT’s links to the deaths of young birds is rock solid.  The links were clear by 1962, and no study has been done since 1962 to question those conclusions.  In fact, more than 1,000 studies have been done on the links, and published in peer-review journals.  Each one supports Rachel Carson’s conclusions that DDT is deadly to young birds.  The mechanisms are now known by which DDT causes eggshell-thinning, which increases the chick mortality.  Recovery of the bald eagle, osprey, and brown pelican correlate exactly with the decline of DDT in the tissues of the birds.  No scientist who has studied the matter doubts that DDT kills birds.
  4. DDT was banned because it disrupts eco-systems.  In the wild, it is uncontrollable.  Yes, it kills pests.  But it also kills all the pest predators, too.  The pests use reproduction as a survival tool, and outreproduce predators, and even DDT.  An application of DDT, then, kills off the predators that protect an ecosystem from the pests, and the pests come roaring back, unchecked by nature.  The poison is magnified as it rises through the food chain (trophic levels, if you want the science term).  By the time an eagle or predator fish eats, it gets a crippling dose of the stuff.  By the mid-1960s, insects and arachnid pests around the world had begun to show resistance and even immunity to DDT (bedbugs demonstrated resistance by 1950; some are completely immune to DDT; almost all mosquitoes now carry multiple copies of a gene which allows mosquitoes to digest DDT as a nutrient, doing no harm).  The restrictions on DDT had nothing to do with human cancers, but everything to do with saving crops and forests, and the wildlife that lives there.  Crichton pulls an old bait-and-switch when he claims regulators knew DDT “wasn’t carcinogenic and banned it anyway.”  The regulators knew it might be a weak carcinogen, but they did not know it spreads through the environment and lasts almost forever, contaminating even human breast milk for at least six decades after application.  But this was not their concern.  The dangers of carcinogenicity were on top of the concerns about agriculture and forests and prairies.  Regulators acted to save the world we live in, and noted that such action also produced a minor reduction in cancer risk.
  5. DDT use in Africa never reached the nations where most malaria victims die today, at least not by 1972.  The ban on spraying DDT on cotton has nothing to do with malaria rates today, except that contrary to Crichton’s claim, it was the DDT use that aided malaria, not its cessation.  So for Crichton to claim that stopping the use of DDT on U.S. cotton crops led to a rise in malaria in Africa is a stretch of evidence way, way beyond any logical link.  Chaos theory only jokingly suggests the butterfly’s fluttering in Beijing last month affects weather in New York this month.  Boll weevils in the U.S. don’t carry malaria anyway, let alone fly to Africa to infect children there.
  6. Crichton dogmatically insists smoke is not a health hazard to non-smokers.  You won’t find much research to back his claim.  It’s another claim he makes religiously, on belief, not on evidence.  He can tell us second-hand smoke is not dangerous, but he can’t back the claim with evidence.  (Dangers of second-hand smoke have been well known since the 1970s; when Orrin Hatch got the law passed to switch to four, rotating warnings on cigarette packages, the debate was whether to include a fifth warning of second-hand smoke.)
  7. Urbanization figures cited by Crichton are low, and do not consider the damage done by urbanization to non-urban lands.  Low?  In one study, planners looked at Tippecanoe County, Indiana.  Recently, urban land use there rose from 8% to 12% — starting from a baseline larger than Crichton allows.  Crichton might argue that counties in North Dakota lose people, but the pollution and erosion from the urbanization in West LaFayette, Indiana, cannot be offset by relatively stable rural areas 600 miles away (I’m plucking a figure out of my hat), in a completely different watershed, in a completely different airshed, in a completely different climate, in a different economy.  Any soldier  or farmer can tell you that concentrating activities of people in a smaller area multiplies the impacts.  If you have 40 cows roaming over 6 acres, you don’t need to worry so much about where they leave their pies, or the concentration of ammonia in their urine.  If you put those same 40 cows in one small pen, however, you’ve just created a runoff problem, and health problems for the cows and the people who handle them.  Wholly apart from the numbers games, the facts show that urbanization increases the need for green and wild space for the people who move into the citiesTwo different presidential commissions reporting 25 years apart noted the needs, and the needs are only more fierce now (the link is to an article by Charles Jordan, who was one of the commissioners on the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors which reported in 1987, the second of the two studies referred to — see Jordan’s article for full details).
  8. If the Sahara is shrinking, that doesn’t help much.  South of the Sahara, in Niger, an area the size of Luxembourg is lost to desertification every year.  Deserts are advancing in Arizona, California, China (both the Gobi and the Taklamakan), and across the rest of Central Asia to Africa.  If the Sahara is shrinking, that’s probably good.  It’s not enough to suggest that desertification is not a problem, even in North Africa.  Ultimately, it’s not how much land is affected, but rather it is the effects themselves, and how they affect humans.  Desertification — which is defined by international agencies as the degradation of land — affects 16.5 million people in Europe alone.  According to the UN, desertification threatens the lives and livlihoods of about out of every six people on Earth — 1.2 billion people total.  How does the Sahara’s shrinking help them?  Is Crichton just pulling another bait-and-switch?
  9. The total ice on Antarctica is increasing because the waters around the icy continent are warming — “lake effect” increases snowfall when increased evaporation from warmer waters is carried by the air over land.  The rather dramatic increases in ice pack on parts of Antarctica are stark testimony to the ill effects of global warming.
  10. If Crichton is right, and no existing technology will allow us to reduce carbon emissions, then we need to hit the panic button, not the snooze button.

Those are just the factual errors in two paragraphs.  Environmentalism as religion?  Maybe that would be a good idea, if the religion honored accuracy and truth telling, rather than fictional accounts of what is going on on Dear Old Planet Earth.

I enjoyed Michael Crichton’s writing, and I hope his stories inspire kids to work at a life in science.  But, as with Caesar, as Antony noted, the bad stuff people do lives on past them.  Let’s change that for Crichton – kill the bad stuff, keep the good stuff.

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.

William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2

Update, April 4, 2013:  American Elephants, a blog that isn’t about elephants, isn’t about their conservation, and in my view, isn’t much about America, either, fell victim to Crichton’s errors, all these months later. Plenty of time to get the story right since 2008, but American Elephants couldn’t do it.  American Elephants is too often an example of the Dunning Kruger effect, alas.

Other sites that still get it wrong, five and six years later:

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2 Responses to Good Interred With Their Bones Dept.: Michael Crichton

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Dyson is an honest skeptic, in my view. While he questions some of the links between warming and actions of humans, he points to practical actions that could provide sinks for CO2. In one paper last year, he also noted that microbes in the soil take up more CO2 than trees, and can do it faster.

    Of course, either way, if we follow Dyson’s advice, we must act. We must educate people how to preserve land, how to keep the soil healthy, or how to plant trees.

    Because Dyson’s science-based advice requires action, the “skeptics” don’t like, or won’t do it.

    Like

  2. Murfyn says:

    Freeman Dyson wrote about CO2 levels; his suggestion is to plant more trees. A good idea whether or not it would have much effect on global climate change.

    Like

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