Iceowl implicitly points toward the essential issue of science and its impact on the future of humanity: namely, is the scientific method-- by definition the most powerful of human constructs-- robust enough, nimble enough, ingenious enough to prevent destroying itself by destroying us? The quick 'n dirty, but, I suspect, ultimately scientific answer is almost certainly "no."
No matter how reverently Iceowl handles the man that gave us The Andromeda Strain and ER*, it's Ted Scambos, not Crichton who's the hero of the above essay, and yet he's a tragic one, like a Catholic priest prevented from revealing a murderer's confession, this eminently good scientist is gagged by his own stringent ethics until it's probably too late to do anything about the results. We've seen this sort of thing before of course. The great myth of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his crew is how conflicted they were about supplying the bomb to the U. S. war machine; but as I have pointed out in both my plays Louis Slotin Sonata and The Sequence, Oppenheimer was a whole lot less conflicted about building the bomb than he'd like history to believe, and a whole lot more conflicted about not being conflicted in the first place, when it mattered. Geneticists of this subsequent century seem to be making a very similar mistake. As Slate's William Saletan reported from a recent genetic engineering conference, the tendency to mock those who admonish researchers to go slow is rife:
Gregory Stock, a biotech apostle from UCLA, predicts that within 10 to 20 years, human eggs will be screened for personality traits. Beyond that, he looks forward to artificial chromosomes. Stuart Newman, a biotech critic, worries that the current practice of screening embryos to produce a sibling tissue donor for a sick child will soon give way to a more efficient technique: cloning the child and mining the duplicate for tissue. Andrew Imparato, an advocate for the disabled, worries that the so-called smart people in the room may repeat the eugenics of a century ago. "Sometimes intellect doesn't equate to wisdom," he cautions.
The most piercing indictment comes from Barbara Katz Rothman, a sociologist with a defiant red-dyed streak in her hair. She dissociates herself from abortion opponents and "fundamentalists" but says she doesn't like where this technology is going. When Stock dismisses her complaint as religious, she replies angrily that many scientists in the room have laughed at frightened laypeople. People understand more than you think, she tells them. Challenged by Stock as the others look on, she casts her eyes down. "I heard a lot of laughter here," she repeats in the hushed voice of a child who has seen another mistreated. "I heard laughter at people's fears." For a moment, the room goes quiet.
But only for a moment. Rightly or wrongly, scientists don't trust normal people. We're not smart enough to truly understand their work. We tend towards "faith-based" decisions. We reject funding for their super-cool superconductors. We throw babies out with bath water. We're . . . well, human. And yet, ironically, the blind faith that many scientists have in science represents an eminently human foible. One tends to be undone by that which works for one, like an army fighting a guerilla insurgency with Cold War weapons.
Jared Diamond, author of the compelling best-seller Guns, Germs, and Steel, makes this argument in his new Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (At $29.95 I'm forced to put myself in line on the library's interminable waiting list; for now I'm reduced to Malcolm Gladwell's review in this week's New Yorker.) Contrary to the consensually accepted myth, says Diamond, the Norse that originally colonized Greenland didn't go extinct because of the mini-Ice Age. After all, the indigenous Inuits came through the prolonged cold snap just fine. No, the Norse went bust because they trusted in their Norse-ness. They raised cattle on delicate pasture incapable of bearing the stress, they used precious wood for non-necessities like imposing doors for their imposing wooden cross-beamed houses, the interiors of which adorned with imposing wooden furniture and ceremonial crosses made, of course, of wood. Cut down all the trees in Greenland, there goes the topsoil, there goes the pasture, there goes your cattle. Of course, you can always eat fish. But no you can't: you're Norse, and have a strong cultural taboo against such a measly diet, no matter how nutritious and abundant. One of the most stunning facts Diamond reports is that of the 35,000 bones analyzed from debris sites of colonial Greenland, only three were from fish.
And, when archeologists looked at the animal bones left in the debris, they found the bones of new born calves, meaning that the Norse, in that final winter, had given up on the future. They found toe bones from cows equal to the number of cow spaces in the barn, meaning that the Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks, meaning that, in the end, they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.
So shall it be with scientists? I refer you to Iceowl's excellent essay above. All the data seems to point to "yes."
*I'm confident in my hope that Iceowl isn't assuming that Crichton is all-together innocent of his own ulterior agendas. Certainly there's a smug safety in going along with the consensus, such as agreeing that second-hand smoke is terribly dangerous, even when the evidence shows no such thing; but there's also a pay-off in going against the grain when, say, you have a book to sell. As Icey tacitly suggests, Crichton would be well and brave to accept the new evidence discovered by Scambos, but knowing as I do a little bit about how buzz gets generated and books get sold, even if he could be confronted with this evidence, Crichton would duck or deny it. He's got books to sell, screenplay rights to negotiate, money to make, not a world to save. You don't get to be Michael Crichton by saving the world.