Michael Crichton on science and storytelling

Javier Benitez points us to this 1999 interview with techno-thriller writer Michael Crichton, who says:

I come before you today as someone who started life with degrees in physical anthropology and medicine; who then published research on endocrinology, and papers in the New England Journal of Medicine, and even in the Proceedings of the Peabody Museum. As someone who, after this promising beginning . . . spent the rest of his life in what is euphemistically called the entertainment business.

Scientists often complain to me that the media misunderstands their work. But I would suggest that in fact, the reality is just the opposite, and that it is science which misunderstands media. I will talk about why popular fiction about science must necessarily be sensationalistic, inaccurate, and negative.

Interesting, given that Crichton near the end of his life became notorious as a sensationalist climate change denier. But that doesn’t really come up in this particular interview, so let’s let him continue:

I’ll explain why it is impossible for the scientific method to be accurately portrayed in film. . . .

Movies are a special kind of storytelling, with their own requirements and rules. Here are four important ones:

– Movie characters must be compelled to act
– Movies need villains
– Movie searches are dull
– Movies must move

Unfortunately, the scientific method runs up against all four rules. In real life, scientists may compete, they may be driven – but they aren’t forced to work. Yet movies work best when characters have no choice. That’s why there is the long narrative tradition of contrived compulsion for scientists. . . .

Second, the villain. Real scientists may be challenged by nature, but they aren’t opposed by a human villain. Yet movies need a human personification of evil. You can’t make one without distorting the truth of science.

Third, searches. Scientific work is often an extended search. But movies can’t sustain a search, which is why they either run a parallel plotline, or more often, just cut the search short. . . .

Fourth, the matter of physical action: movies must move. Movies are visual and external. But much of the action of science is internal and intellectual, with little to show in the way of physical activity. . . .

For all these reasons, the scientific method presents genuine problems in film storytelling. I believe the problems are insoluble. . . .

This all makes sense.

Later on, Crichton says:

As for the media, I’d start using them, instead of feeling victimized by them. They may be in disrepute, but you’re not. The information society will be dominated by the groups and people who are most skilled at manipulating the media for their own ends.

Yup. And now he offers some ideas:

For example, under the auspices of a distinguished organization . . . I’d set up a service bureau for reporters. . . . Reporters are harried, and often don’t know science. A phone call away, establish a source of information to help them, to verify facts, to assist them through thorny issues. Don’t farm it out, make it your service, with your name on it. Over time, build this bureau into a kind of good housekeeping seal, so that your denial has power, and you can start knocking down phony stories, fake statistics and pointless scares immediately, before they build. . . .

Unfortunately, and through no fault of Crichton, we seem to have gotten the first of these suggestions but not the second. Scientists, universities, and journals promote the hell out of just about everything, but they aren’t so interested in knocking down phony stories. Instead we get crap like the Harvard University press office saying “The replication rate in psychology is quite high—indeed, it is statistically indistinguishable from 100%,” or the Cornell University press office saying . . . well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know where I’m going on this one. Distinguished organizations are promoting the phony stories, not knocking them down.

Crichton concluded:

Under the circumstances, for scientists to fret over their image seems slightly absurd. This is a great field with great talents and great power. It’s time to assume your power, and shoulder your responsibility to get your message to the waiting world. It’s nobody’s job but yours. And nobody can do it as well as you can.

Didn’t work out so well. There have been some high points, such as Freakonomics, which, for all its flaws, presented a picture of social scientists as active problem solvers. But, in many other cases, it seems that science spent much of its credibility on a bunch of short-term quests for money and fame. Too bad, seeing what happened since 1999.

As scientists, I think we should spend less time thinking about how to craft our brilliant ideas as stories for the masses, and think harder about how we ourselves learn from stories. Let’s treat our audience, our fellow citizens of the world, with some respect.