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.