3 July 2007

I just finished reading State of Fear by Crichton, and let me just say that the quality of his action scenes has rebounded from its all-time low in Timeline back to approximately Jurassic Park levels. Anyway, in general I liked the book much more than I expected to. In terms of issues raised, that is. In terms of ‘melodramatic conclusions occuring while moving at high speed through mid-Pacific jungle,’ I have to give the edge to Cryptonomicon.

I do think, that as well as Crichton’s exposition of the social and media factors in public knowledge of science plays, I still have a few criticisms.

1. He pretty much ignores the debate over the definition of ‘It’s just a theory.’ To abuse a fabulously delivered Dustin Hoffman line: “‘It’s just a theory.’ That means there’s something that isn’t a theory, which means there’s something that is just a theory, in theory. I’ve written whole papers on ‘It’s just a theory.'”

2. Cricton also comes across as a little naive about the relationship between observation and theory. His railing against computer models, especially in a discussion of climate, could do with some discussion of alternatives to mathematical models of climate. Based on my experience with the relationship between observations and mathematical models in astronomy, the answer to that question is, roughly, “None.” Pretty hard to run experimental replicates when you only have one sample.

3. I think that my biggest twitch, though, is that he seems to assign credibility to scientific processes and data on a completely obscure basis. I won’t say arbitrary, because it might just be poorly explained. But every time the character of Kenner launches into one of his Socratic dialogues with some minor character or other, some citations are given prima facie status and some are not, with no regard for the common framework of those citations. Within the story and even including Crichton’s appendices about his views, there isn’t any clear key for his use of the history & philosophy, or even the sociology of scientific knowledge. Maybe that’s the next book.

4. Call me geeky, but I thought it was cool that Kenner appears to be Lamont Cranston. He doesn’t have the power to cloud men’s minds, but does have a girlfriend named Margo Lane and a mysterious past that includes time spent in the Himalayas.

Finally, as much discussion as there seems to be about the increased use of science and technology in society at large and certain industries in particular, there isn’t much discussion about what kind of knowledge it takes to put it all to effective use. Perhaps the usual engine of change–generation gaps–will sift through to people who can just understand the security risks inherent nonexistent in Google Earth on their own, but that might take a while.

In the mean time, Crichton may be right about the way in which uninformed people working from inaccurate news stories will dictate policy in the world.


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