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Michael Crichton's Legacy

Science and humanity properly understood.

4:30 PM, Nov 7, 2008 • By S.T. KARNICK
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Bestselling author and TV producer Michael Crichton, who died of cancer Tuesday at the age of 66, had an ambivalent view of science but an unfailingly benevolent attitude toward humanity. His writings are particularly important for having brought an intelligent, nuanced view on science to a popular culture much more inclined toward ignorance and political shibboleths in its treatment of scientific issues.

Known for his hugely popular thriller novels dealing with scientific subjects and for his TV series ER, Crichton, an M.D., infused his works with a powerful sense of scientific investigation as an adventure and the world as a place of real wonders.

In Crichton's world, knowledge is always a good thing, but what people do with it is often foolish and enormously destructive, perhaps most famously in Jurassic Park, where a scheme to recreate dinosaurs for entertainment goes horribly awry. That opinion on the uses of science accords with reality, of course. It is an insight, however, that sometimes made Crichton's narratives seem to suggest a need for strong political strictures on science and technology. As science writer Ronald Bailey noted in a review of Crichton's novel Next, this implication could in fact be interpreted as a Luddite vision assuming that "humanity rushes headlong into misusing powerful new technologies."

That, however, was not the real thrust of Crichton's works. Love for knowledge--philosophy in its basic sense--was clearly what drove him and is most evident in his writings. And that has been all too rare an attitude in contemporary American popular culture. There was never anything cynical about Crichton's works. His acknowledgment of the ills people can bring through science and technological advances need not suggest that science or technological change is intrinsically bad. In fact, his attitude looks rather like a scientist's puzzled acknowledgment of original sin.

To some extent Crichton's writings reflected an attitude of scientism in its totalizing sense, the fallacious assumption that nothing not readily explainable by science is true. In a book such as Congo, for example, there is a strong implication that human beings are not unique in this creation and thus not intrinsically of greater importance than other creatures. That line of thinking actually contradicts the warm feelings toward humanity that are necessary to justify his and the reader's concern for the characters.

Fortunately, that sort of scientism is usually not too annoyingly evident in his works. Very much on the positive side, in addition, was his crusade in recent years to tell the truth about global warming: Crichton was insistent that there is no manmade global warming crisis facing us today. In speeches, articles, and his excellent potboiler novel State of Fear, he not only refuted the scientific and economic assertions of global-warming alarmists but also, and perhaps more importantly in cultural terms, pointed out their real motivation for pursuing their agenda: money.

As Crichton made clear in his typically melodramatic and entertaining fashion in that book, there has been a huge amount of money to be made by scaring people about global warming, and the activists who have flocked to that cause have made vast sums of it by exploiting the public's natural and laudable inclination to take good care of the environment. State of Fear was thus an important cultural event in addition to being a highly entertaining read.

In all, Crichton's works reflect an unfailingly benevolent but reasonably skeptical attitude toward humanity, and an appropriately ambivalent attitude toward science--an awareness that knowledge is always good, but human beings are not.

S. T. Karnick is Director of Research for The Heartland Institute and maintains the American Culture website, http://stkarnick.com.