Michael Crichton on How Aliens are causing Junk Science?

I should be studying for finals, but Seth Godin posted this speech by Author Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Congo, Lost World, Andromeda Strain) on how science is becoming more and more impeded by politics and superstitions (that’s a scary thought). It related a lot to my final for Astrobiology (biology on other planets-and yes there is none) immensely, so I didn’t lose any time reading it. Anyways, I liked what he had to say about science, but he got quite a few things wrong:

In 1960, Drake organizes the first SETI conference, and came up with the now-famous Drake equation [for determining the number of intelligent civilizations out in space]


Where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet’s life during which the communicating civilizations live.

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated.

As he points out, “the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero.” The thing is that’s actually the point. The equation shows how little we know about the universe. The answer may not mean anything because there are so many possible answers, but it’s a good way to see how we understand life, or more precisely how we don’t.

SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof…The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.

Hmm, you’ve written a book about the possibility of alien life coming to Earth. Granted it’s a work of fiction, but deep down you know that based on the chemistry of the universe and how common the elements of life are that it is entirely possible that life could exist. Sure it seems fanatical to look into outer space hoping for some kind of sign, but it’s done in a very scientific manner.

There are some more criticisms here.

Anyways, Crichton does have a good point about science as a whole though.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, the connection between hard scientific fact and public policy became increasingly elastic. In part this was possible because of the complacency of the scientific profession; in part because of the lack of good science education among the public; in part, because of the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy; and in great part because of the decline of the media as an independent assessor of fact. The deterioration of the American media is dire loss for our country. When distinguished institutions like the New York Times can no longer differentiate between factual content and editorial opinion, but rather mix both freely on their front page, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard?

Very true indeed. Not enough people get a good background in science. They don’t know how to discren facts from falsehoods

While we’re on the subject of debunking myths, here’s one more that’s bothered me for a while:

The safest place to be in an earthquake is under a doorway. That’s true only if you live in an unreinforced adobe home. In a modern structure the doorway is no stronger than the rest of the building. Actually, you’re more likely to be hurt (by the door swinging wildly) in a doorway. And in a public building, you could be in danger from people trying to hurry outside. If you’re inside, get under a table or desk and hang on to it.

Guess what they taught you in first grade wasn’t true after all. More earthquake myths can be found here.