Saturday, November 15, 2008

Crichton on Science

My junior year, I wrote a paper about C. Wright Mills's book, The Power Elite.  While writing that paper, I learned and thought more about power than I ever had before.  Power is a fascinating topic.  As always, Michael Crichton contributes to the discussion:

"You know what's wrong with scientific power?"  Malcolm said.  "It's a form of inherited wealth.  And you know what assholes congenitally rich people are.  It never fails."

Hammond said, "What is he talking about?"

Harding made a sign, indicating delirium.  Malcolm cocked his eye.

"I will tell you what I am talking about," he said.  "Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power.  There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years.  Whatever kind of power you want.  President of the company.  Black belt in karate.  Spiritual guru.  Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort.  You must give up a lot to get it.  It has to be very important to you.  And once you have attained it, it is your power.  It can't be given away: it resides in you.  It is literally the result of your discipline.

"Now, what is interesting about this process is that, by the time someone has acquired the ability to kill with his bare hands, he has also matured to the point where he won't use it unwisely.  So that kind of power has a built-in control.  The discipline of getting the power changes you so that you won't abuse it.

"But scientific power is like inherited wealth: attained without discipline.  You read what others have done, and you take the next step.  You can do it very young.  You can make progress very fast.  There is no discipline lasting many decades.  There is no mastery: old scientists are ignored.  There is no humility before nature.  There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy.  Cheat, lie, falsify---it doesn't matter.  Not to you, or to your colleagues.  No one will criticize you.  No one has any standards.  They are all trying to do the same thing: to do something big, and do it fast.

"And because you can stand on the shoulders of giants, you can accomplish something quickly.  You don't even know exactly what you have done, but already you have reported it, patented it, and sold it.  And the buyer will have even less discipline than you.  The buyer simply purchases the power, like any commodity.  The buyer doesn't even conceive that any discipline might be necessary."

Hammond said, "Do you know what he is talking about?"

Ellie nodded.

"I haven't a clue," Hammond said.

"I'll make it simple," Malcolm said.  "A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands.  He does not lose his temper and kill his wife.  The person who kills is the person who has no discipline, no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special.  And that is the kind of power that science fosters, and permits.  And that is why you think that to build a place this is simple."

"It was simple," Hammond insisted.

"Then why did it go wrong?"

Jurassic Park, (New York: Ballantine Books 1993), pp. 306-07.

I quoted that at length just in case you, like me, remembered Jurassic Park as just an interesting book about dinosaurs.  There's some serious criticism of modern science in there.

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