Fear, Complexity and Environmental Management in the 21st Century (Michael Crichton)

“There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”
― Michael Crichton

“I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.” 
― Michael Crichton

“Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.”
― Michael Crichton

Our governments can act with a foolishness of simple thinking, when tasked with the complex and unpredictable nature of climate. In one of his epic lectures, Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century, the late Michael Crichton, details the enormous fear created by people and governments with misinformed agendas, and the disastrous consequence of using “linear thinking” to solve complex problems.

In a system as chaotic, complex and intricate as our Climate, we cannot reduce complex problems down to simple solutions. Sadly, this is not very apparent to our Government masters, especially those in the West who like to solve complex problems with simple policy solutions, such that they are readily accepted by us.

We need to be flexible in our responses, as we move into a new era of managing complexity. So we have to stop responding to fear.

But beyond any given crisis, I want to emphasize the pattern: new fears rise and fall, to be replaced by others that rise and fall.

A Mark Twain quote sums up:

“I’ve seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass.”

•••

(Note: Whoever has inherited control of the Crichton Estate, has “gotten rid” of both of his excellent lectures on Environmentalism and global warming climate change. One is featured in this post. The other here.)

•••

Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century 

Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy

Washington DC

November 6, 2005

By

Michael Crichton

I am going to challenge you today to revise your thinking, and to reconsider some fundamental assumptions.  Assumptions so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we don’t even realize they are there.  Here is a map by the artist Tom Friedman, that challenges certain assumptions.

Seen close up.

But the assumptions I am talking about today represent another kind of map—a map that tells us the way the world works.  Since this is a lecture on complexity, you will not be surprised to hear that one important assumption most people make is the assumption of linearity, in a world that is largely non-linear.  I hope by the end of this lecture that the meaning of that statement will be clear.  But we won’t be getting there in a linear fashion.

Some of you know I have written a book that many people find controversial. It is called State of Fear, and I want to tell you how I came to write it. Because up until five years ago, I had very conventional ideas about the environment and the success of the environmental movement.

The book really began in 1998, when I set out to write a novel about a global disaster. In the course of my preparation, I rather casually reviewed what had happened in Chernobyl, since that was the worst manmade disaster in recent times that I knew about.

What I discovered stunned me.  Chernobyl was a tragic event, but nothing remotely close to the global catastrophe I imagined.  About 50 people had died in Chernobyl, roughly the number of Americans that die every day in traffic accidents.  I don’t mean to be gruesome, but it was a setback for me. You can’t write a novel about a global disaster in which only 50 people die.

Undaunted, I began to research other kinds of disasters that might fulfill my novelistic requirements.  That’s when I began to realize how big our planet really is, and how resilient its systems seem to be. Even though I wanted to create a fictional catastrophe of global proportions, I found it hard to come up with a credible example.  In the end, I set the book aside, and wrote Prey instead.

But the shock that I had experienced reverberated within me for a while.  Because what I had been led to believe about Chernobyl was not merely wrong—it was astonishingly wrong. Let’s review the data.

The initial reports in 1986 claimed 2,000 dead, and an unknown number of future deaths and deformities occurring in a wide swath extending from Sweden to the Black Sea. As the years passed, the size of the disaster increased; by 2000, the BBC and New York Times estimated 15,000-30,000 dead, and so on…

Now, to report that 15,000-30,000 people have died, when the actual number is 56, represents a big error. Let’s try to get some idea of how big.  Suppose we line up all the victims in a row.  If 56 people are each represented by one foot of space, then 56 feet is roughly the distance from me to the fourth row of the auditorium.  Fifteen thousand people is three miles away.  It seems difficult to make a mistake of that scale.

But, of course, you think, we’re talking about radiation: what about long-term consequences?  Unfortunately here the media reports are even less accurate.

 image006

The chart shows estimates as high as 3.5 million, or 500,000 deaths, when the actual number of delayed deaths is less than 4,000.  That’s the number of Americans who die of adverse drug reactions every six weeks. Again, a huge error.

But most troubling of all, according to the UN report in 2005, is that “the largest public health problem created by the accident” is the “damaging psychological impact [due] to a lack of accurate information…[manifesting] as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.”

In other words, the greatest damage to the people of Chernobyl was caused by bad information. These people weren’t blighted by radiation so much as by terrifying but false information.  We ought to ponder, for a minute, exactly what that implies. We demand strict controls on radiation because it is such a health hazard.  But Chernobyl suggests that false information can be a health hazard as damaging as radiation. I am not saying radiation is not a threat. I am not saying Chernobyl was not a genuinely serious event.

But thousands of Ukrainians who didn’t die were made invalids out of fear. They were told to be afraid. They were told they were going to die when they weren’t. They were told their children would be deformed when they weren’t. They were told they couldn’t have children when they could. They were authoritatively promised a future of cancer, deformities, pain and decay. It’s no wonder they responded as they did.

In fact, we need to recognize that this kind of human response is well-documented. Authoritatively telling people they are going to die can in itself be fatal.

You may know that Australian aborigines fear a curse called “pointing the bone.” A shaman shakes a bone at a person, and sings a song, and soon after, the person dies. This is a specific example of a phenomenon generally referred to as “hex death”—a person is cursed by an authority figure, and then dies. According to medical studies, the person generally dies of dehydration, implying they just give up.  But the progression is very erratic, and shock symptoms may play a part, suggesting adrenal effects of fright and hopelessness.

Yet this deadly curse is nothing but information.  And it can be undone with information.

A friend of mine was an intern at Bellvue Hospital in New York.  A 28-year old man from Aruba said he was going to die, because he had been cursed.  He was admitted for psychiatric evaluation and found to be normal, but his health steadily declined. My friend was able to rehydrate him, balance his electrolytes, and give him nutrients, but nevertheless the man worsened, insisting that he was cursed and there was nothing that could prevent his death.  My friend realized that the patient would, in fact, soon die. The situation was desperate. Finally he told the patient that he, the doctor, was going to invoke his own powerful medicine to undo the curse, and his medicine was more powerful than any other. He got together with the house staff, bought some headdresses and rattles, and danced around the patient in the middle of the night, chanting what they hoped would be effective-sounding phrases. The patient showed no reaction, but next day he began to improve. The man went home a few days later.  My friend literally saved his life.

This suggests that the Ukranian invalids are not unique in their response, but by the large numbers of what we might call “information casualties” they represent a particularly egregious example of what can happen from false fears.

Once I looked at Chernobyl, I began to recall other fears in my life that had never come true. The population bomb, for one. Paul Ehrlich predicted mass starvation in the 1960s.  Sixty million Americans starving to death. Didn’t happen. Other scientists warned of mass species extinctions by the year 2000. Ehrlich himself predicted that half of all species would become extinct by 2000. Didn’t happen. The Club of Rome told us we would run out of raw materials ranging from oil to copper by the 1990s.  That didn’t happen, either.

It’s no surprise that predictions frequently don’t come true.  But such big ones!  And so many! All my life I worried about the decay of the environment, the tragic loss of species, the collapse of ecosystems.  I feared poisoning by pesticides, alar on apples, falling sperm counts from endocrine disrupters, cancer from power lines, cancer from saccharine, cancer from cell phones, cancer from computer screens, cancer from food coloring, hair spray, electric razors, electric blankets, coffee, chlorinated water…it never seemed to end.

Only once, when on the same day I read that beer was a preservative of heart muscle and also a carcinogen did I begin to sense the bind I was in.  But for the most part, I just went along with what I was being told.

Now, Chernobyl started me on a new path. As I researched these old fears, to find out what had been said in the past, I made several important discoveries.  The first is that there is nothing more sobering than a 30 year old newspaper. You can’t figure out what the headlines mean. You don’t know who the people are. Theodore Green, John Sparkman, George Reedy, Jack Watson, Kenneth Duberstein. You thumb through page after page of vanished concerns—issues that apparently were vitally important at the time, and now don’t matter at all. It’s amazing how many pressing concerns are literally of the moment. They won’t matter in six months, and certainly not in six years. And if they won’t matter then, are they really worth our attention now?

But as David Brinkley once said, “The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were.”

Another thing I discovered was that attempts to provoke fear tended to employ a certain kind of stereotypic, intense language.  For example, here is a climate quote:

image007

Familiar language, isn’t it? But it’s not about global warming, it’s about global cooling. Fear of a new ice age. Anybody here worried about a new ice age? Anybody upset we didn’t act now, back then, to stockpile food and do all the other things we were warned we had to do?

Here is a quote from a famous 1970s computer study that predicted a dire future for mankind unless we act now:

aaaaaa

Continue Reading »

Fear, Complexity, Environmental Management in the 21st Century – Michael Crichton

•••

See also :

Climatism Hot Links :

Quote Source – The Green Agenda

H/t to Tundra Swans

Advertisements