State of Fear
I’m not a big Michael Crichton fan (the guy always presents really interesting subject matter, but his writing style leaves something to be desired). However, his recent book, State of Fear, is worth a read.
In the book, Crichton takes on a prevailing environmental orthodoxy, arguing (with footnoted references to scientific journals and annotated graphs) that the notion of global warming is … well … just a notion, not a scientific fact or even a proven climate trend. It’s possible that global warming is happening, but it’s also just as possible that it’s not. And yet, the average person believes global warming to be fact and fears that we're rapidly destroying the world’s climate. Of course, this perception didn’t just happen – the average citizen doesn’t read environmental journals or visit climatological Web sites. So where did it come from?
Crichton argues that the notion of global warming (and more broadly, any notion that encourages a “state of fear”) serves the interests of three interrelated and powerful entities—the political elite, the legal profession, and the media.
One of the book’s characters calls these entities the “politico-legal-media (PLM) complex” (State of Fear, Avon Books soft cover edition, p. 501,) and argues that each entity within the complex encourages a perpetual “state of fear” in an effort to control and manipulate people for its own ends. Sounds like conspiracy theory stuff, but it’s actually fairly self-evident, if you think about it for a moment.
A few examples:
1. A car was parked, and suddenly without provocation, it leaped forward killing or maiming an innocent bystander. A tragic accident caused by "sudden unintended acceleration." In the early 1980s, a number of incidents of this type were reported in the media. Politicians accused automobile companies of wrong-doing, cover-ups, and flagrant disregard for public safety, and held hearings to get to the bottom of the matter. Lawyers filed lawsuits, and huge damage awards were rendered. The media reported this breathlessly, without any critical assessment or meaningful investigation. The claim was completely bogus. Subsequent studies by the NTSB, the America Society of Mechanical Engineers, and other independent investigators found absolutely no evidence of mechanical failure. The accidents were caused by driver error.
2. A woman decided that silicon breast implants would make her feel better about herself. Within months of the surgery she suffered from auto-immune disease, a debilitating illness that had a profound affect on her life. During the early 1990s, the media reported many cases of this type. Lawyers sued Dow Corning and other companies and received billions in damages; politicians expressed righteous indignation that corporate America could be so callous. Problem was, definitive scientific studies conducted during the 1990s showed conclusively that the implants did not cause the disease.
3. Today, the media reports every case of “bird flu” uncovered in Southeast Asia, breathlessly warning of the impending catastrophic affects of the illness once it reaches our shores. Politicians commit billions to questionable palliative measures, and lawyers wait, hoping that a vaccine maker (if we can find one) will create a vaccine that has unintended side effects. And people worry ... the state of fear grows.
There are, unquestionably, things that are worth worrying about – things that we should fear. But it seems that the PLM actively encourages a state of fear, not to serve the public’s best interests, but to serve its own.
Politicians need to seem concerned, but only about those issues that poll well among most people. Energy policy? Too controversial, too many competing interests, too much campaign cash. Hence, no state of fear (although there should be).
Lawyers need a bad guy. Reforms to an antiquated, often ineffective criminal and civil legal system? You’ve got to be kidding. Hence, no state of fear.
Media need an audience and the advertising dollars that an audience delivers. In depth investigative reports on government fraud, banking scandals, geopolitical realities? Too complex, not enough pictures, too much content. Hence, no state of fear.
So the PLM avoids or misrepresents the things that should be worrisome, and instead, encourages us to fear or question or mistrust the food we eat, the modes of transportation we use, the medicines we ingest, the medical care we receive, the law enforcement agencies who maintain order, and the military who keep the nation secure.
Is it reasonable to ask questions about these things? Of course, it is. But that doesn’t mean that the PLM should play on irrational fear. When that happens, people support bad decisions because they are afraid. And bad decisions are wasteful at best and dangerous in the extreme.