07 December 2004

What Me Worry?

Best-selling author Michael Crichton, in an obvious ploy to plug his new novel State of Fear, which is published today, has an article in a popular Sunday supplement magazine this past weekend. (In the interest of full disclosure one of my pals is the editor of that magazine, Parade.) The piece, called "Let's Stop Scaring Ourselves" masks itself as a call for skepticism; it could have been subtitled, "Ostriches Unite!"

Crichton's own prognostication skills are unmatched. As if taking a page from his own Jurassic Park, the BBC World Service reported last week that scientists may have figured out how to clone cells from long extinct species. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner he lambastes such "media scares" as global climate cooling and warming, which were only decades apart, the population explosion, resource depletion, and Y2K.

In doing so, he has a good time. "I now recognize that for most of my life I have felt burdened by highly publicized fears that decades later did not turn out to be true," Crichton writes. And he recommends we "start regarding each breathless new claim with skepticism," as he has learned to do.

I'm all for a healthy skepticism and for "keeping fears in perspective," but is it really better to "ignore most of the frightening things" we read and hear? Or rather should we seek the truth in some of these claims and determine what an appropriate response should be? The fact that science has vacillated on the Earth's predicted temperature rise by 26 degrees over 20 years (30 in 1975; 4 in 1995) does not point to falsity. Rather it proves only that science is as inexact as art; testing hypotheses and rigorous inquiry are the hallmarks of good scientific process.

It seems to me that is no reason to stick one's head in the sand and ignore all claims. Test and take appropriate action, yes, but ignore? (On a note related to my post from yesterday, Crichton repeats the claim that the "Club of Rome" was wrong about population and the loss of raw materials. I'm no apologist for the authors of The Limits to Growth, but in the "Author's Preface" to the new edition, they claim their main purpose was "to draw attention to the phenomenon of global overshoot and to encourage society to question the pursuit of growth as a panacea for most problems." On the facing page of this preface they report on one "vivid example of global overshoot" from our recent experience: Wall Street's dot-com bubble.)

Ever the optimistic skeptic, I won't worry. I'm just going to take action to see that dire predictions never come true.

No comments: