Revisiting Uncertainty in Science After a Week of Reading Michael Crichton
Image Credit: Jurassic Park/Congo, 1993/1995
The topic of uncertainty in science fascinates me. Whilst like many scientists, I am constantly befuddled at the lack of trust in science by large swathes of the public, I’m equally troubled by the belief that science can provide all the answers to the world’s questions in a clean, timely fashion. The inherent uncertainty in the scientific method can make it frustrating for people who just want a nice clean answer to a problem, and instead get a rambling series of non-committal suggestions referencing likely outcomes and confidence intervals. We’re trained to think in uncertainties, but they’re difficult to communicate to a world whose faith in science seems to be wavering already.
I had a conversation with Sandra Hamel at the University of Tromsø two years ago after she gave a brilliant presentation on communicating uncertainty in science. I’d just written a post talking about how movies represented uncertainty poorly, and she reminded me that movies aren’t built to deal with the scientific process, referencing an article about Michael Crichton. At the time all I knew about Crichton was that he’d fallen into climate denialism in his later years, and that he’d written Jurassic Park. But the quotes Sandra referenced really hooked me.
Movies are a special kind of storytelling, with their own requirements and rules. Here are four important ones:
– Movie characters must be compelled to act
– Movies need villains
– Movie searches are dull
– Movies must move
Unfortunately, the scientific method runs up against all four rules. In real life, scientists may compete, they may be driven – but they aren’t forced to work. Yet movies work best when characters have no choice. That’s why there is the long narrative tradition of contrived compulsion for scientists.
I highly recommend reading the rest of that interview, linked here. It thankfully doesn’t feature any climate denialism (which I also won’t touch on here). And whether or not you’re a fan of Michael Crichton (full disclosure – I’m not), you can’t deny the influence he has had over Hollywood and many people’s lives through Jurassic Park alone, never mind the myriad of other films he influenced, directly and indirectly. So over the last week I waded through The Andromeda Strain (1969), Congo (1980), and Jurassic Park (1990), and had a look at how he represents the a few issues which science has struggled with over the decades since he started writing.
- The Andromeda Strain – book released in 1969, film released in 1971 – A team of scientists at a remote base race to study a new organism from the Earth’s upper atmosphere that kills people very quickly.
- Congo – book released in 1980, film released in 1995 – A group of researchers head in search of a lost city (and a diamond mine) and run into a very aggressive species of gorilla in the shadow of an active volcano.
- Jurassic Park – book released in 1990, film released in 1993 – You… you know this one.
1. The Progress of Ethics in Science
The most consistent theme over the three books is how quickly science is progressing, particularly biological science, and how poorly humans are managing to ethically manage what we’re creating. This will be familiar to anyone who has seen Jurassic Park. it’s what Ian Malcolm (a VERY thinly disguised stand-in for Crichton himself) spouts constantly.
This isn’t some sidestreamed, out of touch view though. Our inability to develop our ethics at the same rate as our technology is perhaps the central tenet of environmental sociology. Figuring out whether we can do something as opposed to whether we should do something is a problem in every aspect of ecological science, even ecological modelling, as stats guru Bob O’Hara can tell you:
I think with any new technology this is what happens. People are in a rush to use it and at some point, someone goes “hang on a moment, this isn’t right”. And then you get the second phase where people start to think more seriously about what they should be doing.
Jurassic Park begins with an in-depth look at how poorly genetic research is regulated, an issue that still hasn’t got the public worried enough, despite Jon Oliver’s best efforts. The spread of disease as enabled by poor oversight and distrust of scientists is a central tenet of The Andromeda Strain, and almost causes a nation-wide pandemic (that sounds familiar). Congo is about gorillas that were domesticated and then decided to kill their domesticators (admittedly that’s a little less relevant to the present day).
I’m glad to say that I think scientists are starting to get better at this though. Better integration of social science is starting to transform biological sciences, though whether it’s happening fast enough is another question. Brings me to the next point though…
Here again, I have to give Crichton points. Though Crichton grew up in an era whereby many scientists had one discipline, and often thought of interdisciplinarity as a waste of time, each of the three novels begins with an interdisciplinary team being assembled. And every member of the team seem to genuinely contribute something to the team’s endeavour.
Crichton even seemed to take pleasure in having a go at researchers who avoided working with other disciplines, or eschewed communication with the public. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park is a mathematician in the book, who is apparently reviled by large parts of his community for a) using computers and b) having an ‘excess of personality’. The presence of a surgeon on the team from The Andromeda Strain is bemoaned by other scientists, but the surgeon ends up being crucial to the team’s ‘success’. I enjoy Crichton’s attempts to poke fun at scientists who are too stuck in their ways to try new methods or a bit of public outreach. Fortunately, since 1990 many scientists have realised the value of better communication with the public, and I would be genuinely interested in Crichton’s take on science now.
Ok, let’s get down to it. Scientists making mistakes pretty much drive the plot in all of these movies, or in the case of Congo, provide the climax. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that scientists make mistakes, or can’t know everything. The thing that annoys me is the absolute certainty with which the scientists who make those mistakes assure those around them that no mistake has been made. It seems to suggest an arrogance of scientists that we should all be fearful of.
Karen Ross, the protagonist (turned pseudo-antagonist) of Congo, is so completely certain about her geological prowess that she almost kills everyone on the team*. Henry Wu, the geneticist of Jurassic Park, is irritatingly stubborn in his claims that the dinosaurs can’t breed until the proof is absolutely irrefutable. The certainty of Jeremy Stone, lead scientist in The Andromeda Strain, that the town where the titular disease first occurs should be literally nuked, almost leads to the disease being spread nation-wide, and the only thing that stops it from happening is the president not having much faith in scientists.
Whilst the aforementioned gap between technological progress and our ability to comprehend that progress provide Crichton’s backgrounds, the unwavering certainty of the scientists often provides the contrivance that drives the plot. I get the need for a contrivance, as I agree with Crichton that the often plodding nature of scientific research can clash with a movie’s need for a driven plot. And the ego of a hero as their ultimate enemy is nothing new.
Yet these books almost feel like a slap on the wrist to any self-confident scientist, and in that sense they are irritating beyond belief. Sure, we absolutely need to present our research alongside its inherent uncertainty. Yet I feel that modern science struggles more with the opposite problem, and hesitates to provide concrete forecasts and solutions for fear of a loss of credibility, whilst economists and politicians continue to present their own forecasts as definites. Positing scientists as villainous for displaying conviction not readily present in most scientific fields feels dishonest, and rankles.
So whilst I appreciate Michael Crichton’s work for inspiring generations of paleontologists, I think that his understanding of science is a little one-sided. or maybe he’s just a product of his era.
Regardless, whilst I can’t wholly recommend any of the books mentioned above, I can’t deny that it was an interesting point of view to delve into.
But if you want a good series of books that do a much better job of conveying problems with ecological science, read Barbara Kingsolver. Just start with Flight Behaviour and go from there.
*Although honestly, her whole story arc basically seems to be that she needs to listen to the men around her and smile more. You could write an entire book about sexism in Michael Crichton novels. Honestly, I know it was 1970, but The Andromeda Strain almost seems to take place in an alternate universe where women don’t exist. The best way I can sum this up is with the comment my wife made when I mentioned that Crichton, like Ian Malcolm, had been married 4 times:
“Maybe they read his books.”
Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is going back to Terry Pratchett books for a bit. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.