Michael Crichton: A Devout and Honest Skeptic

Crichton was often accused, I think unfairly, of being a bit of a Luddite: his novels often drew conflict from experiments or technology gone wrong. The Andromeda Strain was based on the idea of a deadly plague from space, probably sparked by the initial concern about the Apollo 11 crew possibly bringing back alien diseases from the Moon; Andromeda Strain was actually released the same week as the first moon landing. Westworld, a "robot revolt" in which malfunctioning robots in a fictional amusement park turn on the park guests; Jurassic Park, of course, based on bioengineered recreations of dinosaurs who get loose in another theme park; and Prey, built around the "grey goo" scenarios of nanotechnology speculation, all were based around this notion of the undesirable side effects of technology caused by human error.

I think the Luddite charge, however, is unfair. Crichton himself saw science and technology as essentially good. In his speech "Aliens Cause Global Warming," he says explicitly, "even as a child I believed that science represented the best and greatest hope for mankind."

What Crichton saw instead was that new situations lead to new problems, not just in technology but socially. Rising Sun is built around the conflict between Japanese and American culture; Disclosure, around the unexpected effects of changing ideas of what is appropriate at work. He had the brilliant fiction writer's eye for the essential conflicts, and he built his fiction around them.

Instead, I think Crichton was a devout and honest skeptic. In Travels, his collection of short autobiographical essays, he describes going to a professional psychic; he goes in with an open mind but determined to not fall for a "cold reading," and left impressed. Even though it contradicted his worldview, he had to admit the experience was convincing.

One of those areas in which Crichton was a notable skeptic was in the area of global warming. In several speeches, and eventually in testimony to the Senate, he examined the actual data behind theories of anthropogenic -- "human caused" -- global warming, and he found them wanting. This led to his being denounced as a "denialist" -- but he honestly evaluated the evidence, and honestly gave his opinion.

He never seemed to think of himself as anything but an entertainer; in Ronald Bailey's own obituary of Crichton, he quotes Crichton as being honestly surprised that his skeptical take on technological or scientific topics might have any effect other than whiling away a few hours. More important, I think, was that Crichton never saw problems as insoluble or humanity as impotent in the face of them. In his movies and novels, humans overcome the unexpected bad effects of new technologies, one way or another.

Humans survive. So too, I think, will Crichton's work.