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January 10, 2006

Michael Crichton's "Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management…"

Mickael Crichton delivered a talk recently titled Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century (November 6, 2005). Crichton summed up with a quote from Mark Twain, “I’ve seen a heap of trouble in my life, and most of it never came to pass.” Before summing up, though, Crichton works through a litany of forecast disasters that weren't, then says:

It’s no surprise that predictions frequently don’t come true. But such big ones! And so many! All my life I worried about the decay of the environment, the tragic loss of species, the collapse of ecosystems. I feared poisoning by pesticides, alar on apples, falling sperm counts from endocrine disrupters, cancer from power lines, cancer from saccharine, cancer from cell phones, cancer from computer screens, cancer from food coloring, hair spray, electric razors, electric blankets, coffee, chlorinated water…it never seemed to end.

… [F]or the most part, I just went along with what I was being told.

Now, if we are to do better in this new century, what must we do differently? In a word, we must embrace complexity theory. We must understand complex systems.

We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.

By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.

Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.

Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.

The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now thirty years old. A third of a century should be plenty of time for this knowledge and to filter down to everyday consciousness, but except for slogans—like the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway around the world—not much has penetrated ordinary human thinking.

On the other hand, complexity theory has raced through the financial world. It has been briskly incorporated into medicine. But organizations that care about the environment do not seem to notice that their ministrations are deleterious in many cases. Lawmakers do not seem to notice when their laws have unexpected consequences, or make things worse. Governors and mayors and managers may manage their complex systems well or badly, but if they manage well, it is usually because they have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with complex systems. Most managers fail.

Why? Our human predisposition treat all systems as linear when they are not. A linear system is a rocket flying to Mars. Or a cannonball fired from a canon. Its behavior is quite easily described mathematically. A complex system is water gurgling over rocks, or air flowing over a bird’s wing. Here the mathematics are complicated, and in fact no understanding of these systems was possible until the widespread availability of computers. …

An important feature of complex systems is that we don’t know how they work. We don’t understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don’t. Sometimes spectacularly. …

If we can’t even understand the basic aspects of our own systems, what makes anybody think we can understand natural phenomena, that are thousands of times more complicated?

Because they are.

… It’s this simplistic, cause-and-effect thinking that must go.

And for that matter, who believes that the complex system of our atmosphere behaves in such a simple and predictable way that if we reduce one component, carbon dioxide, we will therefore reliably reduce temperature? CO2 is not like an accelerator on a car. It’s not linear (and by the way, neither is a car accelerator.) And furthermore, who believes that the climate can be stabilized when it has never been stable throughout the earth’s history? We can only entertain such an idea if we don’t really understand what a complex system is. We’re like the blonde who returned the scarf because it was too tight. We don’t get it.

Fortunately, studies show that we can learn to manage complex systems. There are people who have investigated complex systems management, and know how to do it. But it demands humility.

And I would add, along with humility, managing complex systems also demands the ability to admit we are wrong, and to change course. If you manage a complex system you will frequently, if not always, be wrong. You have to backtrack. You have to acknowledge error. You’ve probably learned that with your children. Or, if you don’t have children, with your bosses.

And one other thing. If we want to manage complexity, we must eliminate fear. Fear may draw a television audience. It may generate cash for an advocacy group. It may support the legal profession. But fear paralyzes us. It freezes us. And we need to be flexible in our responses, as we move into a new era of managing complexity. So we have to stop responding to fear….
I agree, and heartily endorse this part of Crichton's message. I'm always glad to see yet-another champion of complexity theory, and have included Crichton as one since Jurrasic Park.

But I do disagree with all (including perchance Crichton) who use such reasoning to say that just because we humans have been clever enough so far to keep ahead of self-induced calamity, we should pat ourselves on the back and keep doing what we seem to do best—risking all for whatever strikes our fancy. Instead, I side with those who believe in attempting to apply the "precautionary principle." For more in this vein, and some criticism of Crichton's book State of Fear consider these:

Michael Crichton's State of Confusion I, 12/13/2004
Michael Crichton's State of Confusion II, 12/15/2004
PEW Center's "Answers to Key Questions raised by M. Crichton in State of Fear"
The End of the Global Warming Debate, John Quiggin, Crooked Timber,1/4/2006
The Official Michael Crichton Message Board

Posted by Dave on January 10, 2006 at 08:54 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Ray West

It is hard for me to understand why anyone would take seriously what a fiction writer might have to say about an extremely complex set of scientific problems that he (Chrichton) obviously does not understand. This celebrity/entertainment driven public exposure reminds me of a witty and clever bible thumper who insists on and gets a "debate" on national media on whether life on earth developed through evolution by natural selection, or by divine intervention.

I would rather hear from the scientists who have spent their lives studying the subject, who have the intellect, training and temperament to understand the problems with forcasting climate change debate the issues.

Michael Chrichton's fear, confusion and hyperbole is just distraction and theater.

Ray West | Jan 10, 2006 8:57:10 PM

Posted by: dave iverson


I probably should have introduced my post with the caveat that this Crichton talk has been floating around the FS email network recently, and people might be too easily drawn into the simple-minded conclusion that Nature will adjust and adapt just fine to whatever we humans do.

I agree with you that Crichton's views ought not to be taken as "what's up in science." On the other hand I am glad, this side of STATE OF FEAR, that Crichton has helped to bring complexity theory one step closer to "main stream" thinking. Since I haven't read STATE OF FEAR I'll leave it to others to comment on it

dave iverson | Jan 11, 2006 8:33:20 AM

Posted by: Tony Erba

I don't believe that Crichton's book should be evaluated on its technical and/or scientific accuracy. It should be looked at more from his perspective as to how he views what is shared as "fact" vs "fiction" in describing a complex phenomenom.

Too often readers are presented with only one side of the story instead of the present acknowledging the myriad of opinions that exist (my science vs your science). For complex topics such as global warming, you can easily find people claiming that our planet is/isn't getting hotter. That's not the point - what we do as a global population to generate this debate is the point. What are we doing with our everyday activities that warrants such debate? Having someone tell me that what I'm doing is right/wrong for our continued sustainability is offensive, especially when the "facts" are twisted to that person's viewpoint. In today's world, it is hard to find someone who maintains the high moral ground with their discoveries, which is what Crichton points out.

Tony Erba | Jan 18, 2006 9:41:39 AM

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