03 January 2006

Michael Crichton - Pointing the Bone

I use the term hysterical - not in its comical sense but in the sense that an event derives from hysteria - founded in fear and panic.

Fear and panic are what drives our media. The aboriginal shamen will "point a bone" at a person and that person will die days later from mysterious, unknown causes.

In "Fear, Complexity, and Environmental Management in the 21st Century", Michael Crichton presents his case that we are hooked on the sensational and the salacious. He discusses the idea that our opinions are formed by "false fears" - citing the Chernobyl disaster, Population Explosion, and Global Warming theories as evidence that hysteria-driven news reports have longer and much more far-reaching consequences than the events that are reported.

He shows that initially, Chernobyl experts claimed that the disaster had only 2,000 casualties - with an unknown number of future deaths and deformities. As the years passed, the size of the disaster increased; by 2000, the BBC and New York Times estimated 15,000-30,000 dead.

The actual number of dead was 56. The actual number of delayed deaths was 4,000. Surprised?

He claims that the Ukrainian people were "information casualties." They reacted to news reports, reports tarnished with unrealistic scientific datum, that said the death toll could reach "tens of thousands, with hundreds of thousands more rendered sterile." That affected the thousands of Ukrainians who didn’t die. They were made invalids out of fear. They were told to be afraid. They were told they were going to die when they weren’t. They were told their children would be deformed when they weren’t. They were told they couldn’t have children when they could. They were authoritatively promised a future of cancer, deformities, pain and decay. None of which was true.


Global Warming is also brought out as an example of unfounded pablum. People forget that for decades, scientists warned us that the earth was cooling...yes - Cooling.

His point is well taken. We live in an age of sensationalism where pseudo-science reigns and lawsuits define how we conduct ourselves. How many of you heard that "Killer Bees" were coming from South America to infect the docile American bees with murderous rage? There were timelines and geographic data drawn up showing that by 2000, two-thirds of the US would be covered by the Killer Bees and that there was no hope for our civilization....remember that?

Even the Katrina disaster showed how little we care for the facts. Thousands murdered, armed gangs running the streets, police officers killed, looting, raping, suicides...it turned out to be completely untrue.

The sad thing is that most people don't bother to dig below the headlines. They rely on sounds bytes and 15 second TV news stories to form their opinions about things. And they are very ready to believe anything that sounds outrageous and salacious.

Look at all the Urban Legends that so many gullible fools think are true. They don't bother to even think about how insane the proposals are - "forward this email to 10 friends and Bill Gates will send you $5,000 dollars", or "forward this email and a little dog will dance across your screen."

Do they stop to think for a moment as to how this system would even work? And more to the point - thinking is a rare commodity these days. Crichton shows that system complexity is not understood and is mostly underestimated. We don't know enough about our own weather to accurately forecast a thunderstorm - let alone a tornado. Then how can we possibly understand Global Warming with all of the complexity that that model contains? We cannot - for now.

The debate will continue but I can make a prediction: Global Warming will turn out to be a natural and cyclical meteorological systemic event.

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