January 08, 2004
Crichton: Environmentalism is a religion?

In a recent speech, Michael Crichton calls environmentalism a religion based on lies.

It's not really to his credit that much of the speech consists of straw man arguments. He names specific names approximately twice.

His main point is that environmentalism needs to be based on scientific facts, which are checked and rechecked by multiple independent scientific studies.

Fair enough; there is, no doubt, room for improvement in the way environmental science is carried out.

But he also makes a number of radical claims. Two examples:

"Second hand smoke is not a health hazard to anyone and never was, and the EPA has always known it.

"Environmentalism has already killed somewhere between 10-30 million people since the 1970s."

He doesn't bother to cite a source or justification for these claims. Nothing but one vague reference to a few magazines, no date or issue number provided. The version of the speech on his web site cites no sources. There is simply no substance to the argument that is available to the listener or reader.

And the categorical nature of his claims are hardly scientific. "Not a health hazard to anyone and never was"? Such a claim is so easily refuted: a person suffering from asthma walks into a room filled with second hand smoke. We can categorically say that this person is not experiencing a health hazard?

Ok, so Crichton just misworded his speech. But it is a basic principle of science that there can be no ultimate certainty about any such claims, much less something as broad as all second hand smoke in all environments, given any possible person. To say that something like that is provable beyond doubt, even if it is true, is unscientific.

In the best of cases, it's like saying that under any conditions, gravity will exist on Earth. In actuality, we can only ever conclude that under the conditions present while we have conducted experiments, there has been something we refer to as gravity on Earth. Maybe there are conditions under which gravity does not exist on Earth. All we can say with certainty is that as far as we have experienced, it is a consistent presence.

If Crichton knows this--which is among the most elementary principles of science--then he doesn't let on.

Instead, there's this:

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 prestigeous 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 dependant on facts, but rather are matters of faith. Unshakeable belief.
Translation: I'm not making unsubstantiated claims, you are. And if you'd only listen, I would give you the evidence. But you won't listen, so I don't have to. QED!

I am willing to entertain the possibility that some of these claims might be true. Certainly some of the less flamboyant claims are true. But is it not shamefully hypocritical to advocate scientific rigour, only to flout it in obvious ways when it is convenient to do so?

Crichton accomplishes one thing: he introduces a great deal of doubt. This can be very useful, scientifically. But my guess is that, in the current political climate, the take-home message for anyone who hears it is "environmentalists are full of shit -- don't believe them." That, or they just shut Crichton out, and keep believing, despite his preemptive admonitions.

Neither option is desireable.

There's plenty more that Crichton didn't do, or even hint at. Like encourage his listeners to be more scientifically inquisitive. He didn't bother to explain one simple way in which they could be productively skeptical in relation to specific scientific claims. He just said: it's all a religion, based on huge, massive lies.

He doesn't even mention that there are a large number of environmentalists out there who are serious about science. No: they're all wrong, except for Crichton.

How about citing the work of one or two of the thousands of environmentalists whose view of nature and science is in many ways close to sentiments expressed by Crichton in the more lucid (if painfully obvious) moments of his speech?

Why does Crichton not spend so much as a single sentence offering an explanation for the massive obfuscation of scientific fact that he accuses "environmentalists" (who are, apparently, all the same) of perpetuating? One hypothesis I could venture based on these preliminary findings is that his ego is big enough to keep him believing that he's the only one with acess to the real truth. Another might be that he spends far less time (read: approaching none) practicing science than he does talking about science.

In the same breath that he says that the environment and politics are so complex that we need to be "deeply humble", he reduces all of environmentalism to one set of oversimplified beliefs.

If there's a way to start a rational debate about environmentalism as a whole, this isn't it. Crichton tears down far more than he builds, and contradicts himself so much in the process that he sacrifices his credibility before he gets to his important points.

posted by dru in politicsoftech