The Nov. 4 death of Michael Crichton marked the passing of not only a bestselling author, but also a crusader for real science over overheated speculation. Whether writing such bestselling fiction as "The Andromeda Strain," "Jurassic Park" and "State of Fear" or authoring speeches and essays on global warming, Crichton did his homework, often conducting months, if not years, of research before putting pen to paper. The result is a body of work that integrated hard science into ripping good yarns featuring compelling messages. In fact, perhaps no writer since the late Carl Sagan has done as much to popularize science for the masses.
Crichton was born in 1942 to John Henderson Crichton and Zula Miller Crichton in Chicago, the second of four children. After spending World War II in Colorado, the family moved to Long Island, where Crichton grew up and attended school. An account of the family's 1956 vacation to Sunset Crater National Monument in Arizona became his first published piece, when the 14-year-old submitted the story to the New York Times travel section. He graduated from Harvard University in 1964 with a degree in anthropology, and spent the next year in Europe as a Henry Russell Shaw Travelling Fellow and Visiting Lecturer in Anthropology at Cambridge University before returning to Harvard for his medical degree. He first achieved critical and commercial success with 1969's "The Andromeda Strain," a science-fiction thriller chronicling the United States' response to an extraterrestrial pathogen. Throughout the next four decades, he would publish 14 more novels and four non-fiction books, in addition to writing for medical journals and motion pictures and creating the popular television medical drama "E.R.," currently in its 15th and final season.
Throughout his literary career, Crichton's novels blended thrilling fiction with scientific fact in order to examine the moral ramifications of employing either incomplete or unfettered science. For example, "Jurassic Park" is speculative fantasy that simultaneously relies on actual, widely used laboratory techniques to tell a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences inherent in genetic experimentation. While scientifically astute readers may recognize that Crichton's novel "Next" features transgenic organisms with many attributes that aren't really within the realm of possibility given current understanding of genetics, like "maturity gene" therapy that miraculously cures impulsive drug addicts, your writers would argue that these concepts are used to illustrate broader issues of biomedical ethics in experimental therapies. In a similar vein, Crichton dramatizes the real-life court case Moore v. Regents of California - in which California's Supreme Court concluded that individuals maintain no property rights over tissue taken during surgery - when the novel's biotech firm is awarded unlimited control over any cells derived from a cancer patient, including all the cells of the patient's daughter and infant grandson.
While his fiction garnered widespread popularity and acclaim, as well as inspired blockbuster film adaptations, Crichton also was a tireless champion of divorcing fantasy and fiction from real scientific inquiry. He sought to preserve science as an important guide to policymakers while emphasizing the need for complete analysis and taking other inputs into account. As an outspoken critic of global warming alarmism, for example, he pointed out the absurdity of the concept of consensus science, equating such a notion as more a type of religious faith than anything else - akin to what Russell Kirk would call "scientism." In a speech to San Francisco's Commonwealth Club in 2003, Crichton stated: "The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda.... We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we're told exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems."
Crichton brought this skepticism to bear in the last novel he published in his lifetime, "State of Fear." Crichton makes it clear in the novel's foreword that it is a work of fiction, and that the businesses and organizations featured in the book are cast in a fictional light. However, he includes an appendix and bibliography that catalog the scientific studies upon which he based his protagonists' statements about global warming and other environmental issues. In the book, a well-respected environmental group, Natural Environmental Resource Fund, engineers fake natural disasters to occur during the organization's global climate change conference. Tellingly, Crichton depicts NERF's operatives as lawyers and activists rather than objective scientists. These apparatchiks will stop at nothing to further their objectives of seizing money and power - all under the guise of environmental consciousness.
Despite the many abuses of science chronicled by Crichton, he summed up his views quite optimistically, "In my lifetime, science has largely fulfilled its promise. Science has been the great intellectual adventure of our age, and a great hope for our troubled and restless world."
Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Property Rights Network and Lauren Ruhland is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in while or in part is hereby granted, provided that the authors and the Center are properly cited.