So I read Jurassic Park, and it was a book written by a deeply, childishly, moronic person. I don’t want to insult Michael Crichton too much, but good lord he was a stupid man. I’m not even talking about the flaws in his science, which others have discussed, I’m talking about huge flaws in his logic and the stupidity of the anti-science rants within the book. I was also fairly shocked on how badly the book is written. There is no character development, you can’t describe a person in the book unless you talk about what they look like and what job they have. The story is paper thin, and it’s filled with garbage that even a bad editor should have sliced away with their magic red pen. I do not intend to tear down the book line by line Red Letter Media style, so I’ll focus on two pieces instead.
The first is the introduction, where Crichton asserts that before the 20th century, scientific discovery was made by people working exclusively for the love of science. In fact, allow me to quote directly from the book…
For four hundred years since Galileo, science has always proceeded as a free and open inquiry into the workings of nature. Scientists have always ignored national boundaries, holding themselves above the transitory concerns of politics and even wars. Scientists have always rebelled against secrecy in research, and have even frowned on the idea of patenting their discoveries, seeing themselves as working to the benefit of all mankind. And for many generations, the discoveries of scientists did indeed have a peculiarly selfless quality.
In the past, pure scientists took a snobbish view of business. They saw the pursuit of money as intellectually uninteresting, suited only to shopkeepers. And to do research for industry, even at the prestigious Bell or IBM labs, was only for those who couldn’t get a university appointment. Thus the attitude of pure scientists was fundamentally critical toward the work of applied scientists, and to industry in general. Their long-standing antagonism kept university scientists free of contaminating industry ties, and whenever debate arose about technological matters, disinterested scientists were available to discuss the issues at the highest levels. But that is no longer true.
Really? Has anyone told Edison this? He was one of the premier scientific minds of the last century, was he not? Or is Edison not a pure scientist because he invented things that people wanted? Further more. Do we actually believe that discovery is a selfless act? Columbus didn’t sail the ocean blue for the sheer hell of it. There were billions at stake. Not in today’s money, in the money of his day, a quicker route to Japan and India was worth billions and would make whoever owned that route so rich that a new metaphor would be needed to describe their riches. None of the explorers that I’ve ever read about did it for the love of discovery. They were all doing it for the money. Some did it because they wanted to build a better weapon, some did it because they wanted to make a better ship, some did it because they thought it would get them laid in 17th Century France (note: they were right) but they all hoped to get something from it. Tycho Brahe got an entire damn island because of his scienciness and ruled that little thing like some kind of Danish tyrant. I’ll admit, the idea of a Danish tyrant is sort of hard to picture. I’ve got Sandi Toksvig in my head demanding people beheaded for being taller than her, it’s a weird image. The point is that he threatened to move away in hopes that he might be offered the island (so says one biography) so he did science and then demanded a price. What is that if not commerce at work? The point is that the notion that before the 20th Century, science was just for SCIENCE and nothing else is bullshit. I really did sit there and yell “Oh come on! How fucking old are you? Twelve?” Science has almost always been for someone’s direct benefit, and rarely has it been investigated without reasons or goals. The idea of the selfless professor sitting quietly in his study with test tubes and microscopes is a myth of the 20th Century. To say otherwise is to have a narrow, naïve, and let’s just say it, plain damn ignorant view of the history of science. I’ve got James Burke’s entire body of work to back me up on this, who you got?
Yeah… that’s what I thought… bitch!
The next bit I’d like to argue with is later in the book, during the main anti-science rant where Malcolm explains why science is like inherited wealth. This section is much longer, but I’ll still quote it…
“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.”
“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 like this is simple.”
The last bit actually had me scoffing and being sarcastic out loud. “Oh yes.” I announced to the cats. “That’s why Chinese literature isn’t replete with tales of martial arts masters abusing and killing their wives and children. That’s why Mike Tyson is such a gentle and serene creature who never beat his wife or raped anyone.” Violent dickheads are violent dickheads, the discipline just makes you better at hitting when you get mad and decide to hit. Believe me, I know. Let’s just deal with the specific Karate Master comment, and we can talk about all the martial arts masters in Japan who have killed their children through extreme forms of what some might call discipline, but I call abuse. It is not an unheard of event for someone trained in the arts to become abusive, loose their cool, and kill someone. The metaphor is false, and stupid.
Besides, what’s the alternative? If we take this rant as read, he’s suggesting that you should never read the work of another scientist, that you should discover each idea for yourself. That’s not at all feasible in any realistic sense if you’re talking about science. Everyone had to read Newton and Copernicus, and then extrapolate further from that. You can do Galileo’s ball drop experiment, but after a while you just have to start taking proofs as read and extend into your own experiments. If the Wright Brothers had to discover how to build an engine and make a glider and all the hundreds of other things you need to make even a primitive airplane before getting to make their plane, they’d have never made their plane. You see? There are dozens of scientific discoveries within the relatively simple Wright Flyer and it wouldn’t be possible to discover them all yourself. It would be like asking a child to construct a working gas powered automobile using only Sesame Street as a guide.
Everyone reading this is doing so because of a device that was built because many, many people stood on the shoulders of giants as it were and made something greater. That’s what we have been doing ever since we started developing language. Communication was formed so we could share ideas and not have to discover that rocks aren’t edible by ourselves. Most the things you’ve learned in your life are very likely, things that someone else imparted to you in one form or another. Somebody told you, showed you, wrote it down for you, explained to you, or possibly transcribed onto your brain with a laser scalpel. There is almost no form of learning that isn’t in someway standing on the shoulders of someone bigger than yourself and to suggest otherwise is simply intellectually dishonest.
I’d like to complain more about the book, particularly the misogyny which really pissed me off, but I’ll skip it for now because I have to write a review of the movie.