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Green Fury : Science Fiction / Public Trust

Publié le 1 octobre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires
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In September 2005 Senator Inhofe invited science fiction author Michael Crichton to Washington to counsel the U.S. Congress on the issue of climate change. Due to his celebrity influence, Crichton’s melding of science fiction with policy recommendations risks hindering the capacity for informed public discussion on scientific matters of concrete social importance. Crichton’s speech collapsed the spheres of entertainment and scientific discourse, and therefore questions the idea of scientific authority (and its origins) in the wider context of environmental discourse.

Some Science Fiction Crap
Timothy Tolle, Some Science Fiction Crap, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

In debate over public science policy, multiple voices interplay. Not all participants are experts. Ideally, translation of scientific data into policy outcomes requires that the relevant science is both comprehensible to decision-makers, and that the source is credible. As argued by Douglas Powell and William Leiss: “Where risks are concerned, what the public wants to hear is what those charged with risk management responsibility think ought to be done, and why.(2)”

So, who can claim scientific authority, on what grounds, and with what sources? The rhetoric of science is strategic and purposive language. It is important to understand the use of this rhetoric because by directing and deflecting attention, its strategies may motivate action (such as the making of environmental policy) or encourage the adoption of an attitude that leads towards a desired action or understanding (3).

Credibility and Influence

In his speech “Environmentalism as Religion,” Crichton claims to walk two roads: as popular author, and as scientist. However, only in the realm of the former can he validly profess expertise. His official website notes that he earned an MD from Harvard Medical School but then defines him as “a writer and filmmaker, best known as the author of Jurassic Park and the creator of ER,” and as “one of the most popular writers in the world [whose] books have been translated into thirty-six languages, and thirteen [of which have been] made into films(4).” His list of professional contributions consists exclusively of contributions to the entertainment industry in the forms of novels, television shows, films and video games. He has never practiced medicine.

Were Crichton’s audience fringe, or his scientific credibility trivial, the opinions made public in his speech would be of minor critical significance. However, due to his international celebrity and self-identification with scientific authority, there is a danger that his views exert disproportionate influence on a public understanding of contemporary environmental issues.

Reducing Environmentalism to Fanaticism

One extended analogy forms the core of his speech. As is evident in its title, Crichton draws a correlation between environmental and religious thought. As the separation of state and religion is purportedly one of the tenets of American politics, this correlation argues that environmental perspectives lack policy relevance. To do this he employs a synecdoche – environmentalism as a whole is equated with the Deep Ecology movement. The Deep Ecology movement is a very particular branch of environmental thought whose goal is to preserve the intrinsic ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems, a goal often setting the movement against fundamental values of industrial culture. By evaporating the distinctions between a myriad of environmental groups (5), ranging the spectrum from radical (Earth First!), to more conservative (The Nature Conservancy), and reducing the movement as a whole to one of its more extreme versions (Deep Ecology), Crichton presents a choice between two opposing paths: the Enlightenment versus the Dark Ages.

Bad science (aka Religion, Morality and Politics)

In his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (6), Al Gore declares of climate change: “I don’t really consider this a political issue, I consider it to be a moral issue”. Such words, suggests Crichton, are anathema to the scientific project, which should be objective, and thus distanced from religion, morality and politics.

Public awareness of the dangers posed by climate change is now sufficient to render simple denial of its existence problematic. Indecision and apathy are therefore best encouraged by obfuscating the anthropogenic origins of climate change, largely through the denigration of scientific research. Crichton, therefore, depicts mainstream climate science as deficient, biased and incapable of predicting future climate variations. Consistent with Conservative discourse on environmental policies, governmental funding of climate research is equated with the politicization of science, and scientific conclusions are attacked as subjective and therefore insubstantial. Last, the environmental movement as a whole is charged with propagating an elitist and irrational orthodoxy.

In “Environmentalism as Religion,” Crichton summarizes his argument:

“[E]nvironmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths. There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability.”

These words attempt to demonstrate the mythic (unscientific) origins of the modern environment movement. By doing so, they dissociate environmentalism from empiricism and, by extension, from rational thought. Affirming his allegiance to hard, unyielding science, Crichton states: “We need to stop the mythic fantasies, and we need to stop the doomsday predictions.” Derived from this blueprint, Crichton makes two paramount accusations: first, environmental thought is grounded in dogma; second, mainstream environmental science is corrupted by political (moral and fanatically religious) bias.

Critically important here is the strategic redefinition of scientific consensus as “mythic fantasy.” As observed by Myra MacDonald: “The meanings we attribute to words and images depend on cultural assumptions, and help, in turn, to perpetuate these.(7)” By encouraging the public to falsely equate scientific consensus with either fantasy or orthodoxy (depending on whether environmentalists are assumed to be ignorant, corrupt, or both), Crichton mines a deep cultural aversion to the union of science with faith. This argument resonates strongly in a global context where the rhetoric of extremists’ and terrorists’ religious fanaticism dominates the evening news and serves as justification for America’s War on Terror.

Misappropriated Scientific Authority

Full comprehension of scientific issues often requires a specialized ability to trace connections between broad global and historical patterns. An untrained observer is required to trust the recommendations of credible individuals (and expert witnesses), and before doing so, must determine who qualifies as such.

Crichton would like to portray himself as such a trustworthy individual: one who shuns dogmatism, a seeker of pure, apolitical truth. He claims: “[S]cience offers us the only way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then we are lost. We will enter the Internet version of the dark ages, an era of shifting fears and wild prejudices, transmitted to people who don’t know any better.”

Running with this metaphor, he attempts to appropriate the authority associated with the scientific method. His employed terminology suggests neutral, rigorous, pragmatically-informed caution; it alludes to stability and endorses the continuation of current social practice within an ethical framework of far-sighted wisdom. Significantly, his calls for further research and open debate serve also to situate his discourse within a proactive, morally ascendant framework.

Crichton’s claim to scientific expertise can be summed up by the passage: “I can, with a lot of time, give you the factual basis for [my] views, and I can cite the appropriate journal articles…. But such references probably won’t impact more than a handful of you, because the beliefs of a religion are not dependent on facts, but rather are matters of faith.”

The argument might be paraphrased: trust me. This appeal to popular common sense is an effective tactic, for it claims a potent discursive ground that straddles the worlds of (technical) scientific expertise and (lay) common sense.

Notwithstanding his claims to privileged knowledge, Crichton identifies himself as one aware of the limitations of human knowledge, particularly when faced with a complex issue that exists on a broad scale. Evoking the twin spirits of humility and liberalism, (and contrasting himself to the dogmatism that he equates with environmentalism) he therefore states: “fundamentalism is dangerous because of its rigidity and its imperviousness to other ideas(6).” His suggested response to such unyielding thought alludes to the very communicative processes that he has attempted to suppress: “We need to be humble, deeply humble, in the face of what we are trying to accomplish. We need to be trying various methods of accomplishing things. We need to be open-minded about assessing results of our efforts, and we need to be flexible about balancing needs.” By shunning complex scientific concepts and focusing, rather, on the perceived frailties of environmentalism, he directs his audience’s attention towards a specific (negative) evaluation of the environmental movement and its aims.

Expertise and Persuasion

Persuasion is central in debate surrounding “controversial” science. As an integral aspect of communication, it is a requisite dimension in the formation of public opinion. Yet how rhetoric is used is not predetermined. Because it sets debate agendas and directly influences policy creation, it may be employed towards socially counterproductive ends. Popular author Crichton, has deployed language to influence public opinion and serve political objectives.

His opinions are potentially dangerous due to their influence on a large (best-selling) audience base, and given their distorted and partial perspective on the critical mass of scientific environmental research. This influence is perhaps amplified by his questionable claim to represent scientific objectivity, and his perceived trustworthiness.

The author purports to champion both scientific integrity and the democratic principle of free inquiry. The latter justifies and even romanticizes the way his project runs contrary to prevailing scientific belief. However, in addressing the former, a paradox infects his works: He simultaneously claims scientific interpretive authority, yet derides the credibility of the scientific establishment. The result is a vacillation between opposing depictions of science as at times beneficial, at others deficient and corrupt. His solution to this dilemma lies in the principle of selectivity, for by choosing his experts, Crichton becomes both judge and jury in the environmental debate (8).

While the coherence of Crichton’s argument dissolves when situated within the broader context of prevailing scientific belief, there is risk that his views exert undue influence on public understanding of contemporary environmental issues. As a best-selling author, his potential audience is massive and includes elite decision-makers: such as, Senator James M. Inhofe, who has pronounced global warming to be “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”. In 2005, Senator Inhofe invited Crichton to serve as expert witness to the U.S. Congress on the issue of climate change. Although he received an unfavorable reception from certain members of congress, this event indicates that there are those who welcome his maverick stance on the issue (9).

Conclusion

Despite his assertions to the contrary, Crichton’s arguments are structured along religious lines. His credibility must be accepted without evidence and on faith. The above speech is thus important to the extent that it illustrates how individuals with celebrity may command immense audiences and enjoy privileged rhetorical status. Regardless of actual degree of expertise, such individuals may at times successfully self-identify as authorities on diverse social matters. This phenomenon raises the question: why are our criteria for credibility, authority and trustworthiness skewed by celebrity and commercial success?

While Crichton’s right to free speech is unquestioned, his arguments merit challenge due to their potential broad appeal. Scientific knowledge and the narrative tropes of popular entertainment can never stay entirely separated; the ideal of a purely objective scientific project divorced from religious, moral and political concerns is as much a myth as the purported tenets of the Deep Ecology movement that Crichton critiques. Nonetheless, scientific conclusions may at times be of great social consequence. This does not imply that science can access absolute truth, simply that within any given situation, public decisions should be based upon the best available provisional knowledge. Expert interpretation and communication of scientific information provides a vital foundation for public dialogue about the appropriate societal role of environmental perspectives. The danger is that slippage between the entertainment and technical spheres, compromises that discussion.

References

(1) Crichton, Michael. “Environmentalism as Religion.” 29 Sep. 2007. MichaelCrichton.com. Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, CA. 15 Sep. 2003. <http://www.michaelcrichton.com/speech-environmentalismaseligion.html>.
(2) Powell, Douglas, and William Leiss. Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk: The Perils of Poor Risk Communication. Montreal: McGill/Queen’s University Press, 1997: 223.
(3) Burke, Kenneth. On Symbols and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989: 115.
(4) “About Michael Crichton.” MichaelCrichton.com. 4 Nov. 2007. <http://www.crichton-official.com/aboutmichaelcrichton-biography.html>.
(5) Corbett, Julia B. Communicating Nature: How We Create and Understand Environmental Messages. Washington: Island Press, 2006: 26-52.
(6) An Inconvenient Truth. 2006. Paramount Classics and Participant Productions. Directed by Davis Guggenheim.
(7) MacDonald, Myra. Exploring Media Discourse. London: Hodder, 2003: 9.
(8) Livesey, Sharon M. (2002) Global Warming Wars: Rhetorical and Discourse Analytic Approaches to Exxon Mobil’s Corporate Public Discourse The Journal of Business Communication 39.1, 117-148. (p. 129)
(9) Janofsky, Michael K. “Michael Crichton, Novelist, Becomes Senate Witness.” 29 Sep. 2005. The New York Times 6 Nov. 2007. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/29/books/29cric.html>.

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