Perspective From Michael Crichton On Experts And Predicting Crises

Michael Chrichton was a unique and relentlessly positive influence on our culture, popular and otherwise, before his death in 2008 at the age of 66.  Trained as a doctor and scientist, he applied his knowledge, his brilliance, and more importantly, his remarkable powers of lateral thinking and unbiased analysis, to myriad  fields, always aimed at a form of public education that was fueled by entertainment.  He taught, he wrote best-selling novels, he was a futurist, he directed movies, he created TV shows.   Mostly he thought, and through the fruits of his thought, made ordinary people smarter, at least those smart enough to pay attention. Yes, he thought a lot about ethics. You can learn more about his career and interests at his website, here.

Michael Crichton was especially interested in threats and crises, how they happen and our reactions to them. His first hit novel, “The Andromeda Strain” was about a deadly virus. He would have been very helpful right now. Though he was himself an expert on many topics, he was wary of the abuse of expertise; though he was a visionary, he was was a vocal skeptic of predictions and assumptions. Crichton, I think, would have found the current weaponizing of hindsight bias to find a new way to demonize President Trump as revolting and dishonest as I do.

In this 2002 lecture, Crichton discussed the media’s obsession with speculation, and society’s unwarranted confidence that the future is predictable, especially when experts are doing the predicting. Some selections:

Expertise is no shield against failure to see ahead. That’s why it was Thomas Watson, head of IBM, who predicted the world only needed 4 or 5 computers. That is about as wrong a prediction as it is possible to make, by a man who had every reason to be informed about what he was talking about. Not only did he fail to anticipate a trend, or a technology, he failed to understand the myriad uses to which a general purpose machine might be put. Similarly, Paul Erlich, a brilliant academic who has devoted his entire life to ecological issues, has been wrong in nearly all his major predictions. He was wrong about diminishing resources, he was wrong about the population explosion, and he was wrong that we would lose 50% of all species by the year 2000. He devoted his life to intensely felt issues, yet he has been spectacularly wrong…

 

…So, in terms of imminent events, can we predict anything at all? No. You need only look at what was said days before the Berlin Wall came down, to see nobody can predict even a few hours ahead. People said all sorts of silly things about the Communist empire just hours before its collapse. I can’t quote them, because that would mean I had looked them up and had facts at hand, and I have promised you not to do that. But take my word for it, you can find silly statements 24 hours in advance. NOBODY KNOWS THE FUTURE. Now, this is not new information. It was Mark Twain who said, “I’ve seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass.” And much of what politicians say is not so much a prediction as an attempt to make it come true. It’s argument disguised as analysis. But it doesn’t really persuade anybody. Because most people can see through it. If speculation is worthless, why is there so much of it? Is it because people want it? I don’t think so. I myself speculate that media has turned to speculation for media’s own reasons…

 

…On a plane to Europe, I am seated next to a guy who is very unhappy. Turns out he is a doctor who has been engaged in a two-year double blind study of drug efficacy for the FDA, and it may be tossed out the window. Now a double-blind study means there are four separate research teams, each having no contact with any other team—preferably, they’re at different universities, in different parts of the country. The first team defines the study and makes up the medications, the real meds and the controls. The second team administers the medications to the patients. The third team comes in at the end and independently assesses the effect of the medications on each patient. The fourth team takes the data and does a statistical analysis. The cost of this kind of study, as you might imagine, is millions of dollars. And the teams must never meet. My guy is unhappy because months after the study is over, he in the waiting room of Frankfurt airport and he strikes up a conversation with another man in the lounge, and they discover—to their horror—that they are both involved in the study. My guy was on the team that administered the meds. The other guy is on the team doing the statistics. There isn’t any reason why one should influence the other at this late date, but nevertheless the protocol requires that team members never meet. So now my guy is waiting to hear if the FDA will throw out the entire study, because of this chance meeting in Frankfurt airport. Those are the lengths you have to go to if you want to be certain that your information is correct. But when I tell people this story, they just stare at me incomprehendingly. They find it absurd. They don’t think it’s necessary to do all that. They think it’s overkill. They live in the world of MSNBC and The New York Times. And they’ve forgotten what real, reliable information is, and the lengths you have to go to get it. It’s so much harder than just speculating

The lecture is titled “Why Speculate?”, and there’s a lot more. I recommend reading the whole thing.

12 thoughts on “Perspective From Michael Crichton On Experts And Predicting Crises

  1. I read this lecture years ago, and have re-read it several times since. I wish that it could be required reading. Media writers might then think twice about headlines like: “Study predicts…”, or “Polling shows likely..”.
    Ah, but we so badly want to know the future.
    World To END Tomorrow!
    Women, minorities to be most effected.

  2. Speculation is a coping mechanism for dealing with an unknown future. It offers seemingly plausible scenarios upon which to plan or prepare.

    As a confirmed pessimist, I am always concerned with a series of negative speculative futures for which I should be as well prepared as possible, without going to extremes due to the uncertainty of those outcomes.

    As someone who is often wrong in my pessimistic speculations, it is a relief to be so.

    Somewhat troubling is the thought the impact of my pessimism may reach well beyond me when engaged in the world beyond my family and career…here at EA for example.

    Unfortunately, my pessimistic speculation regarding the media and the dissolution of the social contract binding us together as a nation has been, essentially, on the mark since Bush v. Gore.

    Nevertheless, this ethics lesson offered by Crichton might be good guidance to putting on a happier face and living in the present rather than speculating about about a gloomy future which may never come.

  3. Revolting and dishonest? Maybe so. However, there’s one thing that’s absolutely predictable at this point: the media’s unreasoning hatred for President Trump and determination to see him out of office this January the latest, come hell or high water. If something can be weaponized, politicized, sensationalized, or manipulated to that end, they will do it. They have just been coming up short until now. Russia was a flop, trying to prove the president was insane never caught on, xenophobia was a losing argument, racism was an accusation the nation’s basically gone deaf to, accusations of all kinds of financial improprieties didn’t stick, a potential conflict with Iran didn’t take off, and impeachment ended in failure.

    However, now they have a complete disaster that’s not so easily disposed of, and they are determined to make this Trump’s Katrina and destroy his chances of reelection. No, they can’t predict the future, no one can, but there are plenty of folks with smartness credentials who can come up with plausible models, predictions, and recommendations, to give the media something to shake their heads and tut-tut over. There are also plenty of folks on the economic side who they can get to come on and say that the roof is about to fall in. With huge numbers of people stuck at home without a paycheck, no end in sight, and governors on both coasts colluding to slow-walk the recovery, a collapse looks imminent. Throw in a poll that puts Biden way out front, and Trump’s chances of reelection tank.

  4. My frustration is the lack of information. The models just do not work. The ‘experts’ have been trained by climate change to ignore the data in favor of the models. The models predicted NY would need 70,000 ICU beds and 40,000 extra ventilators. They never needed extra ICU beds or extra ventilators. The model estimates were 5x the actual cases. When they put the data for March into the model, the model can’t accurately model MARCH! Anyone still relying on these models needs to be fired. They are completely ignoring the data of what is ACTUALLY happening.

    This is the information I want: I want the number of people dying in the US each day compared to the number that died in 2019, 2018, and 2017. About 8000 people die every day this time of year in the US. They say 2600 people died yesterday due to coronavirus. Does that mean that 10,500 people died yesterday, or does it mean 8000 people died yesterday and 2600 tested positive for coronavirus? That is what I want to know. That will give us some indication of how severe this actually is. Several sources, including Tucker Carlson, have suggested that we actually have FEWER people dying each day this year than last year, suggesting that deaths due to coronavirus are statistically insignificant or ,at the worst, are as bad as flu deaths before the flu vaccine. Think about that, we may have shut down the economy and risked a famine, a depression, and massive homelessness because of a statistically insignificant disease.

    How can this happen? Cause of death is very subjective and subject to a lot of interpretation. A relative recently died of leukemia and the death certificate says anemia. Now, the leukemia caused anemia, so what was the cause of the death? It may seem semantic, but $100,000 in cancer policies want to know. The death certificate also said heart failure, despite the fact that the heart was the last organ to stop and the organ in the best shape at the end. I guess, in a way, all deaths are due to heart failure… You get the point. Cause of death is virtually meaningless and relying of models we KNOW don’t work and cause of death as indicators of the severity of this disease is incompetent.

    • Beautifully stated. I have been watching Tucker Carlson a lot of late. He seems to be the only one on any media platform exercising skepticism over what the experts say. He plays Fauci’s statements from January where he opined that this virus was statistically insignificant, though it should be taken seriously, but we shouldn’t overreact to it. Then, Carlson will play a new statement where Fauci opines that CoronaVirus will kill an estimated 560 billion people in the next week and that we should never shake hands again. Ever.

      jvb

      • Yes, but really, who cares? Only people who don’t understand models think they are anything but guesses. In this sort of a situation, nobody has good information, so the guesses of experts were certain to be wrong, unless they just get lucky.

        As he often is, Carlson is snotty on this issue. so we’re skeptical—policy makers have to deal with a lot more than models, concluding societal pacts and political realities. In a democracy, we simply can’t make the Pinto-style calculations that Trump’s critics on the Right are endorsing. Kant has primacy here, as he should.

    • Many decades ago I attended a seminar/lecture by a noted medical examiner who was advocating for the “medical examiner” system vis-a-vis the “local undertaker” model. He noted that the most frequently listed cause of death was “heart attack”; his underlying thesis is that we needed to know what attacked it. Since the beating of the heart is the primary indicator of life, vs. death, the person is not dead until the heart stops, in the then common model. As stated above does the failure of the liver to filter bad stuff from the blood cause the heart to weaken and then stop… ? Many other examples might exist. He, the lecturer, even went to the absurd of when the heart is attacked by a blade or projectile.

      I agree that the numbers presented, barely qualifying as statistics, are not very helpful unless you just wish to keep people upset. All numbers cited should include the percentage of the population of the group they relate to. Ten thousand deaths is a lot if it occurs in Indiana, huge if in Utah, and not that bad if in California or New York. Will we ever know if the push to wash hands frequently is also reducing traditional flu cases (other than the Wuhan variety), and making the “number of deaths” lower or about even with years prior. There is way too much we are not being told to make any sound decisions here.

      If I have not worn out my welcome this morning, I call your attention to how the current models cannot even predict March’s numbers using March’s data, and how that mimics the models used to predict our doom due to global warming.climate change.

      • Yeah, that is part of my point. This model is so broken that it can’t replicate the given situation when told that is what it is. That shows that this model is not capable of working for this outbreak and shouldn’t be used. Instead, everyone keeps using the model and ignores the actual data on what is happening. It is like someone insisting they need to shovel the driveway because the weatherman said last night that there was a 100% chance of snow last night. It doesn’t matter that it is 50º and sunny, they are bundled up with a shovel, insisting everyone get out to clear the drive! When shown that the drive is clear and it is warm and sunny, the person refuses to believe it, replaying the forecast from the night before and calling everyone ‘deniers’. These people shouldn’t be in charge of a lemonade stand, much less dictating the restriction of the rights of an entire country.

  5. Adding to my earlier comment, it is also useful to consider speculation as a way to configure the future by altering current opinion toward a predetermined goal. Polls are a form of speculation disguised with questionable statistics.

    The press, as part of a larger leftist (Alinskyite Communist) movement, clearly has predetermined who should be ostracized, demonized, and, if possible, criminalized by speculating about the guilt of their targets while ignoring the guilt of their sycophants. Their goal is to indoctrinate or intimidate the gullible into doing their bidding against the deplorables. This is far from being just about President Trump. It is about silencing or destroying anyone who wishes to impede the progress they’ve made up until Obama’s last day in office.

    The above is no longer speculation. It is demonstrated every single minute of the day by the media. Ever since a non-deep stater ran for and won office against a tried and true elitist and power hungry fiend in November 2016, they have had only one real role: pervert our shared social contract and the Constitution while weakening those trying to uphold it. It is difficult to impossible to see it any other way. Leftism has become a religion where any heresy against must be obliterated physically, vocationally, socially, or emotionally (intellectually is not possible).

    Alinsky’s adherents are immune…Chris Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Paul Krugman, Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder, Don Lemon, Joe Scarborough, Adam Schiff, and literally thousands of others. Just try and post anything on social media approaching being a rebuke of any of them mentioned above and see what happens. Even when their own step out of line they are consumed by the indoctrinated like voracious animals This is what the Alinskyites have built to undo us all.

  6. adimagejim wrote,

    […] it is also useful to consider speculation as a way to configure the future by altering current opinion toward a predetermined goal.

    And he gave as example the usage of polls.

    I would like to add the practice of creating scenarios by corporations and think tanks. They describe possible futures but oftentimes are more used as a roadmap instead.

    An example of such a scenario can be found in the report produced by the Rockefeller Foundation and Global Business Network (May 2010) called,

    Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development

    It describes 4 possible futures and one scenario, Lock Step is pretty close to the current corona-crisis.

    I will quote two fragments of this scenario and for those interested, the whole report can be downloaded at https://archive.org/details/pdfy-tNG7MjZUicS-wiJb/mode/2up

    Fragment 1

    LOCK STEP

    Scenario Narrative
    A world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen pushback
    In 2012, the pandemic that the world had been anticipating for years finally hit. Unlike 2009’s H1N1, this new influenza strain — originating from wild geese — was extremely virulent and deadly. Even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20 percent of the global population and killing 8 million in just seven months, the majority of them healthy young adults. The pandemic also had a deadly effect on economies: international mobility of both people and goods screeched to a halt, debilitating industries like tourism and breaking global supply chains. Even locally, normally bustling shops and office buildings sat empty for months, devoid of both employees and customers.

    The pandemic blanketed the planet — though disproportionate numbers died in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, where the virus spread like wildfire in the absence of official containment protocols. But even in developed countries, containment was a challenge. The United States’s initial policy of “strongly discouraging” citizens from flying proved deadly in its leniency, accelerating the spread of the virus not just within the U.S. but across borders. However, a few countries did fare better — China in particular. The Chinese government’s quick imposition and enforcement of mandatory quarantine for all citizens, as well as its instant and near-hermetic sealing off of all borders, saved millions of lives, stopping the spread of the virus far earlier than in other countries and enabling a swifter post- pandemic recovery.

    China’s government was not the only one that took extreme measures to protect its citizens from risk and exposure. During the pandemic, national leaders around the world flexed their authority and imposed airtight rules and restrictions, from the mandatory wearing of face masks to body-temperature checks at the entries to communal spaces like train stations and supermarkets. Even after the pandemic faded, this more authoritarian control and oversight of citizens and their activities stuck and even intensified. In order to protect themselves from the spread of increasingly global problems — from pandemics and transnational terrorism to environmental crises and rising poverty — leaders around the world took a firmer grip on power.

    At first, the notion of a more controlled world gained wide acceptance and approval. Citizens willingly gave up some of their sovereignty — and their privacy — to more paternalistic states in exchange for greater safety and stability. Citizens were more tolerant, and even eager, for top-down direction and oversight, and national leaders had more latitude to impose order in the ways they saw fit. In developed countries, this heightened oversight took many forms: biometric IDs for all citizens, for example, and tighter regulation of key industries whose stability was deemed vital to national interests. In many developed countries, enforced cooperation with a suite of new regulations and agreements slowly but steadily restored both order and, importantly, economic growth.

    Fragment 2

    By 2025, people seemed to be growing weary of so much top-down control and letting leaders and authorities make choices for them.
    Wherever national interests clashed with individual interests, there was conflict. Sporadic pushback became increasingly organized and coordinated, as disaffected youth and people who had seen their status and opportunities slip away — largely in developing countries — incited civil unrest. In 2026, protestors in Nigeria brought down the government, fed up with the entrenched cronyism and corruption. Even those who liked the greater stability and predictability of this world began to grow uncomfortable and constrained by so many tight rules and by the strictness of national boundaries. The feeling lingered that sooner or later, something would inevitably upset the neat order that the world’s governments had worked so hard to establish.

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