This lecture by Crichton from 2003 has popped up in several places since his passing last week. I had seen parts of it before, but took the time to read the entire thing this time. The title of the lecture is Aliens Cause Global Warming. It sounds strange, I know, but bear with me for a few minutes. He warns us to beware scientists that talk of consensus.
Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.
He goes on to give several examples of this. A few years ago, I read A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I don’t remember most of the details of the book. What I do remember is exactly what Crichton says. Dozens of giant scientific advances were theorized/discovered by men and women who were ridiculed by the intelligentsia of the day and often fired from whatever post they held. For many, recognition was very late in life or posthumous.
Crichton describes several examples from the past 50 years such as the SETI project, nuclear winter and second hand smoke as a carcinogen. He speaks of the decline of the media as a buffer as well. This was the overriding theme of his novel State of Fear. Please allow me another excerpt:
As the twentieth century drew to a close, the connection between hard scientific fact and public policy became increasingly elastic. In part this was possible because of the complacency of the scientific profession; in part because of the lack of good science education among the public; in part, because of the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy; and in great part because of the decline of the media as an independent assessor of fact. The deterioration of the American media is dire loss for our country. When distinguished institutions like the New York Times can no longer differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, but rather mix both freely on their front page, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard?
As you can imagine, this lecture eventually leads to global warming and its accompanying “consensus”. The forecasts we hear about are not, by definition, forecasts at all. They are the output of computer models so complex that I can’t begin to describe them without taking up pages. Crichton has a lot to say about such models.
Let’s think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horseshit? Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?
But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport. And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900.
Every day I hear about scientific advances like this one that should make the electorate pause before they allow their government to rewrite how we use energy. No, not all of them will work out, but the world has a pretty good track record of doing amazing things we couldn’t have dreamed of 100 years before.
I apologize for the length of the lecture, but believe me it’s worth reading in its entirety. I have a lot more to say about anthropogenic global warming, but I will leave that for another time.