Michael Crichton’s Defense of New Age Mysticism

Posted: May 11, 2014 in Philosophy, Religion, Science, Skepticism
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(Excerpted from Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture, by Chris Edwards)


Fans of the late Michael Crichton’s science fiction (and I would count myself among them) might be surprised to learn that Crichton had a strong interest in the paranormal. In his memoir Travels, Crichton details a number of his journeys. Some of these journeys involved regular travel—to places like Africa—but others involved delving into various realms of New Ageism. At the end of his book, Crichton includes the text of a speech he had planned to give (though he was never actually invited to speak) in front of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). There are plenty of references to ancient wisdom, even a brief mention of quantum physics, but such things are not at the core of his argument. The point of the “speech” is to defend the New Age against pure scientific materialism, not by giving a rigorous argument in favor of New Age concepts, but by trying to drag science down to the same level as superstition.

Crichton’s essay begins by informing the reader that he is disappointed that CSICOP spends so much time debunking astrology, palm reading, UFO sightings and the like, since he doesn’t believe in these things, either. In that respect, Crichton is a bit like a liberal god believer who nods his head when the atheist debunks the Baptist or Islamic god, but continues to believe in some form of vague deity while considering the atheist to be a scientific fundamentalist, whatever that means. But then the attack begins:

I then said, Has anyone in this room had their tonsils and adenoids removed? Has anyone had a radical mastectomy for breast cancer? Has anyone been treated in an intensive care unit? Has anyone had coronary bypass surgery? Of course, many people had.

I said, Then you’re all knowledgeable about superstitions, because all these procedures are examples of superstitious behavior. They are procedures carried out without scientific evidence that they produce any benefit. This society spends billions of dollars a year on superstitious medicine, and that is a problem—and an expense—far more important than astrology columns in daily newspapers, which are so vigorously attacked by the brainpower of CSICOP.

And I added, Let’s not be too quick to deny the power of superstition in our own lives. Which of us, having suffered a heart attack, would refuse to be treated in an intensive-care unit just because such units are of unproven value? We’d all take the ICU. We all do. (357)

Crichton is quite right to point out that expensive surgeries are performed on people with little or no scientific evidence that those surgeries work. In an article for Skeptic magazine, Steve Selarno noted that the idea that modern science enhances longevity is largely a myth, since life expectancy should be determined by one’s current age. Among other things, Salerno pointed out that a 70-year-old man living in the Civil War era could statistically look forward to being 80, which was what a 70 year old living in 1950 could expect. Today, even with all of the new surgeries and treatments mentioned by Crichton, a 70 year old can only expect to make it to 83.5 years. The average age increases over the centuries emerge only when infant mortality is thrown into the mix. Likewise, Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee, writing for Discover magazine, noted that nowhere in the world is there a systematic way to measure the effectiveness of new surgeries and that oftentimes surgery has the potential to cause more damage than the initial problem.

Here’s the problem with Crichton’s argument: modern surgery is not synonymous with the scientific approach to health, and no health care researcher would argue that surgery is a better option for heart care, for example, than regular exercise and a healthy diet, which is what scientific research tells us really works well. A person may have gotten himself into a position where he has a heart attack, not because he believes in science but because he has ignored the lifestyle advice that science has given him. Then, all too often, when someone finds himself to be in ill-health, he fails to do a risk assessment to decide whether surgery will be effective in his particular case. Instead of acting as if surgery is the only scientifically based approach to health, what Crichton should have done is compare the entire scientific approach to health, including diet, exercise, and emotional well-being, with surgery being a last resort in extreme cases, against the health benefits that New Age belief and holistic medicine have given us. Imagine the results if we compared the heart health of a sample of people who ate healthily, exercised regularly, and abstained from smoking with a sample of those who ate poorly, refused exercise, and smoked, but prayed to Vishnu and took holistic medicines.

Superstitious beliefs about disease have had their chance. They abounded for tens of thousands of years, yet no amount of prayer or ritual reduced the infant mortality rate. Scientifically based prevention has. Drastically.

Crichton goes on to write:

Next I reminded [CSICOP] that science as a field does not progress in a uniquely rational manner different from other fields of human endeavor such as business or commerce. Max Planck, who won the Nobel Prize in physics, said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (358)

This is not always, or even mostly, the case. There are many instances in history where a scientist has invested much of his life and career in a theory that turned out not to be very descriptive of the facts. When new facts disprove a theory, sometimes scientists choose to ignore the new facts. For example, when Galileo saw that the orbits of Jupiter’s moons could only be described with a heliocentric model, there were Aristotelian scholastics who refused to look through a telescope. Seeing the moons’ orbits would have required them to rethink not just their theories but their entire lives. If Aristotle was wrong, they would have lost all of their status.
The reason that there are paradigm shifts in science, as John Gribbin has written, has a lot to do with the evolution of technology. A lot of people looked at Jupiter before Galileo, but he was the first one to have the technology necessary for the assembly of a telescope (plus the engineering intelligence and the will) which was necessary to seeing Jupiter’s moons. Each generation has access to more facts, and therefore has to create new theories to describe those facts. If the theories are counterintuitive, that is only because our minds evolved to give us a picture of reality that helped us to survive in, not to properly understand, the universe.

New generations of scientists don’t “believe” in scientific theories because they are indoctrinated with them from youth. Instead, they do what their predecessors did: they examine evidence, new and old, and evaluate which hypotheses and theories best describe it; they then invest their lives and careers in fields and theories that are most likely to offer success.

Crichton’s argument also fails to note that, despite the decision of some scientists not to change their minds—many, like E.O. Wilson, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, to use a few illustrious examples, do change their minds when presented with new evidence—science continues to progress. This is because knowledge accumulates and new scientists, trained to synthesize information and think creatively, continue to push the frontiers. The same cannot be said for New Age thinking. We don’t have better anything due to the “progression” of New Age or religious philosophy.

The next point Crichton makes is that science is just as likely as any other endeavor to fall prey to trendy, non-evidence based, thinking:

Next I pointed out the trends and fads of science, which affected scientists at every level. It was perfectly acceptable for dozens of the world’s most distinguished scientists to propose that our society engage in a costly search for extraterrestrial life, despite the fact that the study of extraterrestrial life is, in the words of the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, “a study without a subject.” A belief in extraterrestrial life is a speculation indistinguishable from pure faith. (359)

Not quite. We have evidence for life. It exists on one planet that we know of, ours. The question, then, is simple: does life of any form exist anywhere else in the universe? Research on extraterrestrial life does not begin from a position of pure faith. There is evidence that life can exist on planets, so researchers look for more evidence.

Under Crichton’s criteria, a cancer screening is a faith-based initiative. I wouldn’t get a screening based on the assumption, necessarily, that I have cancer. Instead, my screening would be prompted by my knowledge that cancer exists and has been found in other people, therefore there is a possibility it could exist in a like body—mine. I would suspend my judgment until all of the evidence was in

The search for extraterrestrial life is hardly the equivalent of praying the rosary, and it’s grotesque to pretend that it is.
Next, Crichton tries to make the New Age immune to scientific scrutiny, by asserting that scientific rigor cannot be applied to mystical claims. (It seems like I’ve heard this before.) He notes the failure of a variety of psychics and shamans to perform their tricks in a controlled setting, under the watchful eye of researchers. Psychics explain away their failures by claiming that they can’t perform in such sterile conditions because they have to be “in the mood.” Correctly, Crichton notes that most scientists are unimpressed by such an excuse; then he offers a retort:

[E]veryone has firsthand knowledge of activities for which you must be “in the mood”: for example, sexual intercourse, requiring lubrication in the female, erection in the male. Creative work is another state-dependent activity that cannot be reliably performed on demand, as the vast literature devoted to “courting to the muse” testifies. (359–360)

While it is true that some forms of sexual arousal and creative thinking are state dependent, it is not the case that were we to ask people to have sex or paint in a room with people watching that they would fail every time. People have sex on camera or in front of people all the time; for some the presence of watchers is a turn on. Why are there no psychics who perform under pressure? Further, I find it hard to believe that Hemingway or Michelangelo would find it impossible to even begin their creative work just because a few men in lab coats were jotting down notes. (Harlan Ellison once wrote a short story while sitting on display behind a bookstore’s front window.)

Having decreed that science is incapable of studying the paranormal, Crichton then derides scientists for failing to investigate the paranormal more seriously. The supposed reasons for this have mostly to with “intellectual prejudice” amongst scientists, who simply refuse to study the work of less educated mystics who think differently. Interesting. I wonder if there are any cases in history where mystics and religious leaders have oppressed people who thought rationally.

Also, Crichton asserts, scientists don’t look into paranormal claims because they seem to “contradict known physical laws.” This isn’t it at all. The problem is that mystics of all stripes fail to provide enough consistent evidence to warrant an investigation. If psychics want respect, then I suggest that they get themselves “in the mood,” then post their revelations online the day before a big event, such as an earthquake or tsunami. If the specific predictions (where and when) of even a small number of “psychics” were correct, their “psychic abilities” would almost certainly be subjected to thorough scientific vetting. Until then, scientific investigation of the paranormal is a waste of valuable time and resources.

For some reason, Crichton goes on a long tangent about a mythical man named George and asks how much we can really know about the man other than, say, his measurements. He writes:

This, in essence, is the problem with the scientific view of reality. Science is a kind of glorified tailoring enterprise, a method for taking measurements that describe something—reality—that may not be understood at all.
Science is very good as far as it goes. It has certainly produced powerful benefits. It would be crazy to abandon science, or to deny its validity.

But it would be equally crazy to think that reality is a forty-four long. Yet it seems as if that is what Western society has done. For hundreds of years, science has been so successful that the tailor has taken over society. His knowledge seems so much more precise and powerful than knowledge offered by other disciplines, such as history or psychology or art.
But in the end one can be left with a nagging sense of emptiness about the creations of science. One may even suspect that there is more to reality than measurements will ever reveal. (366–367)

Science is merely the enterprise of trying to use evidence to create theories (languages) which describe how the universe works. History works the same way. Historians collect evidence and then try to create narratives which best fit that evidence. New evidence can alter accepted historical narratives just as surely as it can change a scientific paradigm. Historians often debate over which theory best describes the evidence. This does not mean that there are other ways to “intuit” the past or that history is somehow limited in its means of description.

This false proposition is Crichton’s constant mistake. He later writes:

 [T]he experience of these other forms of consciousness seems to me to be ordinary, even mundane. These different forms of consciousness—whether inborn gifts or trained procedures—lead to other kinds of knowing, other perceptions of underlying order in the world around us. They are not mathematical perceptions, but they are perceptions nonetheless. Before you dismiss these perceptions as outright fraud or fantasy, it seems useful to experience them firsthand. If you’re not willing to experience them firsthand, you open yourself up to the criticism that you dismiss what you don’t understand.

And you diminish your own experience of reality. (373)

There’s no reason for me to try to experience mysticism first hand. There are billions of people every day who try to induce an otherwordly experience for themselves. What I am interested in is whether or not there is anything of value in these experiences. Not a single useful idea concerning physical reality has come from such experiences in all of history—the gods never tell their prophets about neutrinos. And the social ideas generated by such experiences have caused enormous misery. So I am not tempted to try them.

Crichton insists that science alone is not sufficient to understand and interpret the world. The reason for this, he insists, is because science can’t answer the “why” questions. Such as “Why are we here?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The fact that there are no reasons, and therefore no answer to the “why” questions, does not disprove science. It merely means that the questions themselves are meaningless. Religion is no better at answering these questions. Bear in mind that for thousands of years religions have been telling people that they and the world exist merely to play out a “faith or hell” game with an almighty trickster. Some answer.

Crichton’s “intellectual” defense of mysticism and the New Age seems sincere, but is badly misguided and based upon false analogies rather than outright fallacies. Such a distrust of science is implicit in some of his best known novels, but those were fantasies, harmless and entertaining. The New Age is neither.

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