Follow Michael Crichton’s Rule
The late writer warned about bending to social pressure instead of heeding evidence.
Nov. 3, 2019 3:47 pm ET
“Jurassic Park” and “Westworld,” from the brilliant mind of Michael Crichton, aren’t real. But neither are a lot of things that pass for arguments these days. Crichton, who died in 2008, gave a lecture at Caltech in 2003 titled “Aliens Cause Global Warming.” In his words, it was about the “uneasy relationship between hard science and public policy” but I took away a lot more. Relax, this column isn’t about climate change.
His first example was nuclear winter. In 1975 the National Academy of Sciences stated that even with multiple nuclear detonations, the effect from dust would be minor. In 1979 Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment said the science was poorly understood and it wasn’t possible to estimate damage. Yet by 1982 the Swedish Academy of Sciences speculated that smoke would cover the Northern Hemisphere, blocking the sun and disabling photosynthesis—nuclear winter.
Within five years, famed astronomer Carl “Billions and Billions” Sagan figured a 5,000-megaton nuclear exchange would cause temperatures to drop below freezing for three months. Of course, there was no empirical study to back any of this. But what amazed me was the observation that no one could take the other side of the argument. Physicist Freeman Dyson said, “It’s an absolutely atrocious piece of science, but who wants to be accused of being in favor of nuclear war?” Argument over.
Same for secondhand smoke. In 1994 the Environmental Protection Agency found that 11 studies of the link between smoke in restaurants or offices and cancer were not conclusive, but nonetheless labeled secondhand smoke a Group A carcinogen. The World Health Organization also began to warn against secondhand smoke despite inconclusive studies of its own. Since then, study after study has found no statistically significant relationship between cancer and being near indoor smoking. Yet no one takes the other side of the argument. Except for smokers, no one likes the smell of tar and nicotine while they’re eating or working. Yuck. No one, including me, is actually for secondhand smoke.
Crichton observed: “Once you abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once you start arranging the truth in a press conference, then anything is possible.” That includes children at the United Nations yelling, “How dare you.” It’s knee-jerk analysis. I call it the Crichton Conundrum: “I’m against it, so these theories must be right—even though the science is most likely bunk.” Shallow, but sadly a reality.
The conundrum is everywhere. Take the $15 minimum wage, a so-called living wage—who could be against that? The problem is that the alternative isn’t necessarily $8 or $10 an hour; often it’s no job and $0 an hour. Lo and behold, restaurants are closing in San Francisco.
Or take net neutrality. No one wants an un-neutral internet, even though that enables innovative pricing to help fund fiber-optic and wireless buildouts. Similarly, we all feel good about “natural” forest management and now California burns.
These arguments are often vague, even Orwellian—the expressions “net neutrality” and “climate change” conceal their shallow concepts. But they’re also Crichtonesque in the way they foreclose any argument from the other side. If you’re against food stamps or children’s health spending, you’re heartless, even though they are inefficient, ineffective and rife with fraud. And friendly sounding No Child Left Behind and Common Core? Sorry, math scores went down.
Free college, day care and medical care? Didn’t Cuba try that? Free or price-controlled goods always end up like subsidized bread in the Soviet Union. You get less of it and empty shelves. The same is true of rent control, as California will soon learn.
Nobel Prize-winning economist (who could be against that?) Joseph Stiglitz last year suggested relief of Puerto Rico’s burdensome debt. Ah, relief—except then Puerto Rico would probably not be able to borrow again for a long time (which applies to student loans as well). And then there’s social justice. No one is for injustice, but now campus mobs are threatening free speech.
Many counterarguments are hard to frame. You can’t just argue the opposite. Crichton reminds us to question the science, the data and the studies, and to argue outside the box you’re put in. Often the answer to most policy questions is “Who pays?” Of course, it’s “greedy corporations” or the 1% fat cats, except that jobs are created by corporations, or funded out of the investment savings of the wealthy, creating new companies and progress. Are you against that?
Why doesn’t anyone make the case for free markets? Because it doesn’t lend itself to easy sound bites: “What do you mean millions of people make billions of price decisions every day that efficiently allocates capital?” Michael J. Fox’s character on “Family Ties,” which ran until 1989, was the last popular free-market spokesman but was portrayed as greedy. Plenty of people still believe it’s better to have governments set prices.
Crichton would have a field day today: democratic socialism, implicit bias, medical marijuana, open curriculum, small class sizes, surveillance capitalism, HOV lanes, electric-vehicle credits, renewable-fuel standards, carbon taxes—it never ends. We’re sorely missing the other side of the argument.
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“If society is afraid, they can be controlled.”
State of Fear by Michael Crichton