Fear, Complexity and Environmental Management in the 21st Century (Michael Crichton)Posted: August 13, 2013
“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
Regarding the foolishness of simple thinking, especially from our governments around such a complex and unpredictable system as our climate, there is no better read than this talk by the late Michael Crichton, titled Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century (November 6, 2005)
Crichton details the enormous fear created by people with misinformed agendas and the disastrous consequences 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.”
Crichton’s brilliant talk is summed up through a quote from Mark Twain
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. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass.”
Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century
Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy
November 6, 2005
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. Keep Reading »