The Lebedev Syndrome

November 18, 2015
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, one of the least appealing characters is a fellow named Lebedev, a man who could pontificate on any topic. I was reminded of Lebedev following a recent discussion I had with a friend on the topic of climate change. My friend pointed out that, although he didn’t claim to understand the science of climatology, he did think Michael Crichton’s novels expressing skepticism about human-caused global warming made sense.

Now, to say Michael Crichton had remarkable talent and intelligence is a bit of an understatement. He graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, sold 200 million books, had colossal successes in television (ER) and film (Jurassic Park), and he won an Emmy, a Peabody, and an Academy Award. And this is only a partial list of his awards and accomplishments.

Unfortunately, however, therein lies the problem. People with that kind of success tend to have great difficulty in recognizing their limitations, and often have Lebedevian proclivities. Nobel Prize winners are notorious for this human foible. William Shockley (transistor) and James Watson (DNA), for example, both claimed there was strong evidence that some races were inherently less intelligent, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Linus Pauling thought vitamin C could prevent many human ills. Other Nobel laureates have similarly ventured far afield to weigh in on topics about which they know very little.

Crichton apparently suffered from this same delusion… assuming that his astonishing success somehow allowed him to understand an exceedingly complex topic that was outside of his expertise. He was trained as a physician, not a climate scientist, and his skeptical views on climate change were thoroughly debunked by qualified climatologists. Crichton weighing in on the science of climate change makes about as much sense as me weighing in on quantum mechanics; I simply do not have the requisite training or understanding.

It would appear that people who pontificate on issues outside their field suffer from a humility deficiency. They would have no doubt profited from reading sixteenth century French thinker, Michel de Montaigne. Notoriously humble despite his obvious wisdom, Montaigne talked about how he eschewed topics about which he knew little: “…sounding the ford from a good distance; and then, finding it too deep for my height, I stick to the bank.” Would that Shockley, Watson, Pauling, and Crichton had the wisdom to stick to the bank as well.

Crichton was also vindictive; when a columnist criticized him on the climate change issue, Crichton put the columnist in a new novel as a pervert with a small penis who raped a 2-year-old boy. Not cool. It takes a pretty small person to do something like that rather than to debate the person who disagreed with him in an open forum. (I assume my criticism will not result in a similar fate for me since Crichton is no longer with us.)

Crichton had every right to question the findings of climatologists, of course. The problem is that—although he did not have a deep and nuanced understanding of climatology—his fame gave him a voice in the world that was orders of magnitude louder than that of those who are truly qualified: climatologists. And that is problematic for one simple reason… probability. It is overwhelmingly more probable that the climatologists are correct than that Crichton was correct.

Look at any scientific discipline during the past century; it is not unusual for people outside the discipline to snipe at the scientists within the discipline. On exceedingly rare occasions, the outsiders turn out to be more right than the scientists. But the question for the climate change issue is whether we are willing to bet the farm on the very slim chance that the climate change deniers are right. Basing public policy on the pronouncements of climate change deniers is like society putting all its money on a single number in roulette; we might win, but it is much more likely that we will lose big.

Mark Twain once said, “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.” Michael Crichton “supposed” that climate change does not represent an existential threat to humanity. But he did not “find out” if his position was scientifically valid. It wasn’t.

Blaise Pascal’s observation is again apropos: “So let us work on thinking well; that is the principle of morality.” The list of “not thinking well” on climate change is long: Michael Crichton, Fox News, most of the Republican candidates for president, fossil fuel corporations, a billionaire brother team (who shall remain nameless, lest I have to buy one of those mirrors to check under my car every morning), and countless “regular folks” who believe the propaganda spewed by the aforementioned voices. According to Pascal’s calculus these people are not thinking well and are taking an immoral position on a vital public policy question. In my opinion, Pascal is absolutely right.

One comment

  1. well said and amen.

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