The Long View 2004-12-15: Good Ideas; Bad Reasons

Sunset Crater with the San Francisco Peaks in the background

Sunset Crater with the San Francisco Peaks in the background

I read State of Fear and I liked it. I also thought it was massively unfair. It was a fun story, given its premises. Taken as a flight of fantasy, it was a blast. If you think it was an unbiased representation of the facts....

Some of the action in the book takes place in Northern Arizona. Many of Crichton's books feature Arizona in some fashion. I remember reading something by him that one of his inspirations for his works was the natural beauty of Sunset Crater. I'm a sucker for books that mention Flagstaff or Northern Arizona in some way.

Good Ideas; Bad Reasons


The scandal of the season seems to be Michael Crichton's new novel, State of Fear. The book is based on the thesis that the hypothesis that global warming is caused by human activities, or even that it is occurring, is politicized pseudo-science. In an address last year, Crichton argued that global-warming belief is just one example of a increasing corruption of science. The paradigm case, he tells us, is the theory behind the search for extra terrestrial life (SETI):

[Consider the] Drake equation:

N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

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. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we're clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be "informed guesses." If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It's simply prejudice.

Most of the policy points that Crichton makes in this essay have merit. The nuclear-winter hypothesis was a propaganda scam. Second-hand smoke has never been shown to do any harm except to the people who are sued for claims that it causes cancer. The Malthusian "Population Bomb" argument is the Thing That Will Not Die, no matter how far it diverges from the facts. Nonetheless, regarding the one example of alleged scientific malpractice that Crichton discusses in detail, SETI, he is plainly talking nonsense.

There may or may not be space aliens, but the question is not undecidable. Certainly it is possible to make observations that would yield a good estimate of the number of Earth-like planets. The values for the final variables in the Drake Equation cannot be known a priori, but even they could be limited by whether signals are detected or not. In fact, to some degree they already have been.

If this is Michael Crichton's idea of science, we should take what he says with a grain of salt.

* * *

Meanwhile, the ingenious argument for Intelligent Design has gained a notable convert:

New York (AsiaNews/CWN) Anthony Flew, the British scholar who has been one of the world's most [eloquent proponents] of atheism, has conceded that scientific evidence points to the existence of God...Early this year, writing in Philosophy Now magazine, Flew had indicated that his commitment to atheism was wavering. He wrote: "It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism..."...Flew--whose 1984 essay, The Presumption of Atheism, fixed his place as the leading proponent of that view--emphasises that he has not accepted Christianity. He said: "I'm thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian, and far and away from the God of Islam." He likened his current position to the deism of Thomas Jefferson, explaining that he is now sympathetic to the researchers who theorise about an 'intelligent design' in the working of creation.

The Argument from Design for the existence of God is the only major proofs, if I am not mistaken, whose critics never claimed to have refuted as matter of logic. Hume himself simply noted that it was an empirical question that was very difficult to answer. The recent Intelligent Design hypothesis claims to have solved by the empirical question by proving that biochemistry could not have evolved by chance within the estimates age of the universe.

Theism as a metaphysical postulate is actually a clarifying agent. If you assume that the universe is personal, or at least rational, you will find out more about it than would a true skeptic. In fact, I would argue that the great deadends in intellectual history have been caused by "fear of religion." In biology and the social sciences, the rejection of teleology in principle has hindered research for decades.

So, I don't think that Anthony Flew will come to much harm for having dropped his guard on the God question. However, with regard to the argument from design, Hume was right.

* * *

Whether or not there are space aliens, we can still look forward to strange things appearing in the sky:

WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Top U.S. Air Force officials are working on a strategy to put surveillance aircraft in "near space," the no man's land above 65,000 feet but below an outer space orbit, Air Force chief of staff Gen. John Jumper said on Tuesday.

Jumper said he would meet next Tuesday with the head of the Air Force Space Command, Gen. Lance Lord, to map out plans to get lighter-than-air vehicles into that region above the earth, where they could play a vital role in surveillance over trouble spots like Iraq...But in near space, such aircraft could carry out radar and imaging missions, carry communications nodes and even potentially relay laser beams from a ground-based source against a wide variety of targets, industry sources said.

That last bit is important. The tactic that will finally put paid to the strategic nuclear era is local defense of the targets. The lasers are more or less ready. One can imagine these relay platforms perpetually on station by the middle of this century, as prominent a feature of major cities as skyscrapers are today. Of course, the loss of nukes would make conventional intercontinental war possible again, but you can't have everything.

* * *

On the subject of strange forms of life, consider this bewildered report from the New York Times's Richard Bernstein on the long-awaited and perfectly predictable European rejection of immigration:

A Continent Watching Anxiously Over the Melting Pot: And so the question: why are Germans - and not just Germans but other Europeans as well - in such a state of anxiety and uncertainty about matters that have been more or less settled in the world's biggest country of immigration, the United States, for years? Why this discomfort with multiculturalism, this belief that assimilation, accepting the leitkultur, is the only way?

What planet does this writer live on? The issues in the United States are different, of course, but can even the Times not know that even most immigrants in America want immigration drastically reduced? And that people look on multiculturalism as a racket the nation can no longer afford? Just wait till 2008.

* * *

A parting threat: my Spelling Reform top page has been updated. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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