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In defence of critical thinking

by mel starrs on November 17, 2008

in Opinion, Theory and Comment

Whilst I was away on holiday the US got a new president, and one of it’s most famous authors, Michael Crichton died. Catching up on my feeds over the past week, I was surprised there wasn’t any comment in my inbox on Crichton’s passing, given his brush with the green movement a couple of years ago. As a massive fan of ER, I always had a soft spot for him.

Much of the criticism of Crichton came following publication of 2004’s thriller State of Fear (disclosure – I haven’t actually read the book although I have read the speech I reference below. Grist review the plot here). The controversy arose from the assertions he makes:

“This is a work of fiction. Characters, corporations, institutions, and organizations in this novel are the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real used fictitiously without intent to describe their actual conduct. However, references to real people, institutions and organizations that are documented in the footnotes are accurate. Footnotes are real.”

The main controversy came from the accuracy of the science he uses (misuses?) in the book. The book (remember, a work of fiction) has been used as nay-sayers of anthropogenic climate change. Which is all kinds of barmy, which I won’t get into here.

I’m fairly ambivalent about this and far more interested in his case that the issue is complex and (using James Lovelock‘s terminology) there may be iatrogenic* consequences. My current interest in decision making and cognitive biases led me back to Crichton’s speech made in November 2005. It’s worth a read (at 41 pages longer than a coffee break! there is also a 1.5 hour video). Some key points Crichton makes:

“when I went back to examine old fears, the first thing I found was that newspapers were focused on momentary concerns; the second thing I found was that the language employed was excessively frightening, and the third thing I found was that a lot of advocacy was encouraging what was happening anyway.”

There’s a few areas of overlap with James Lovelock (the Chernobyl data, for instance). A key point being the danger of fear. I’ve touched before several times on scaring people into action. Crichton is also concerned with the effect of dispute on the underlying debate:

“Environmental disputes frequently revolve around conflicts of land use, triggered by a fear. The spotted owl is endangered, and that means that logging in the northwest must stop. People are put out of work, communities suffer. It may be, in ten or thirty years, that we discover logging was not a danger to the spotted owl. Or the issue may remain contentious. My point is that the drama surrounding such disputes—angry marches and press coverage, tree hugging, bulldozers—serves to obscure the deeper problem.We don’t know how to manage wilderness environments, even when there is no conflict at all.”

He then goes on to review the Yellowstone Park case. Again, a James Lovelock quote resonated with me on reading it. From the conclusions of The Revenge of Gaia (pg. 195):

“The more we meddle with the Earth’s composition and try to fix its climate, the more we take on the responsibility for keeping the Earth a fit place or life, until eventually our whole lifes may be spent in drudgery doing the tasks that previously Gaia had freely done for over three billion years. This would be the worst of fates for us and reduce us to a truly miserable state, where we were forever wondering whether anyone, any nation or any international body could be trusted to regulate the climate and the atmospheric composition. The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

Crichton then goes on to define what he means by a complex system (something I touched on recently):

“We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system—most minds, at least.

By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.

Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.

Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.”

He goes on to say:

“If you have a teenager, or if you invest in the stock market, you know very well that a complex system cannot be controlled, it can only be managed. Because responses cannot be predicted, the system can only be observed and responded to. The system may resist attempts to change its state. It may show resiliency. Or fragility. Or both.

An important feature of complex systems is that we don’t know how they work. We don’t understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don’t. Sometimes spectacularly.”

Crichton’s main concern is that ‘we’ have made conclusions in a linear cause and effect fashion that carbon causes climate change. Whether you agree with his assessment or not, Crichton applies critical thinking to the issue. I would counter his assessment and acknowledge that it is a complex issue, but that we have very likely identified a contributing factor and by reducing anthropogenic carbon emissions, we are doing no harm.

I’m not trying to defend Crichton’s views here, but I would like to acknowledge his recognition of the complexity we are facing.

I am also trying to ensure that we (i.e. me) don’t fall into the trap of discrediting other’s views outright when they don’t match our own and conversely we don’t agree with everything labelled ‘green’ without critiquing the argument.

When I originally read Brad Feld’s post on the current lack of critical thinking, I couldn’t confirm or deny it, but increasingly I’m seeing ‘green’ issues all lumped together and the no ‘internal’ criticism of the matters. For example from my post on the 100 months campaign:

“The pro-camp seems big on repeating the NEF press release, quiet on comment. Which is a shame as the anti-camp have come out all guns blazing”

Rather than getting marred in disputes, perhaps there is an opportunity to use antagonists such as Michael Crichton, Bjorn Lomborg and even Tim Worstall to check our thinking. Without doing so, we run the risk of heading down cul-de-sacs unquestioningly. Question everything.

*iatrogenic – arising from treatment that adds damage instead of curing the malady – i.e. the unintended consequences argument

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  • Phil Clark

    Interesting stuff. I think the interesting part of Obama’s rise is his attempt to reach out to the different, seemingly polar viewpoints (excuse the pun). Perhaps this is a temporary phenomenon but it hopefully can point to a more mature discussion, whether it is on climate or any other issues.

  • Phil Clark

    Interesting stuff. I think the interesting part of Obama’s rise is his attempt to reach out to the different, seemingly polar viewpoints (excuse the pun). Perhaps this is a temporary phenomenon but it hopefully can point to a more mature discussion, whether it is on climate or any other issues.