#176) MICHAEL CRICHTON: The Lost Opportunity

Last week I published this article in Ensia about science fiction author Michael Crichton.  It was criticized from both the left (“You implied the science community made him into a climate skeptic” –  yes, the science community wore him down), and the right (“You called him the divisive, insulting label of ‘climate denier’” – yes, the editors changed my label of “skeptic” to “denier” — boo hoo).  

Below I list 5 main sources I’ve drawn on for insight on Michael Crichton’s climate experience.  Yes, he eventually wrote an unforgiveably bad novel about climate and deserved rebuke for drifting into a camp that was beneath him.  But that said, the science world is still guilty of an enormous MISSED OPPORTUNITY for communication caused by the myopia that always plagues scientists in the subject of climate change.  

Michael Crichton’s final interview with Charlie Rose in 2007:  Two old friends, both sadly headed to ignominy.

 

A GIANT OF A MISSED OPPORTUNITY

Michael Crichton was a giant of a man, both figuratively with all his writings, and literally with his enormous height of six foot nine.  He died shortly after turning 66.  In the final act of his career he turned against the environmental movement resulting in his death having a fair amount of “good riddance” vibe to it.  

People like climate blogger Joe Romm essentially dumped hydrochloric acid into his grave with an “obituary” titled, “Michael Crichton, World’s Most Famous Global Warming Denier, Dies.”  That was in 2008 when the derogatory term “denier” was first being suggested for climate skeptics.

But Crichton was incredibly smart, charismatic, and widely liked by all who knew him.  Michael Ovitz, who was probably the best businessman Hollywood has known in the past five decades, ran Creative Artists Agency which represented Crichton for most of his filmmaking career.  Ovitz wrote an entire chapter about Crichton in his autobiography that came out in 2018.  The last line of that chapter said it all for Ovitz, “I miss him every fucking day.”

Michael Crichton was better than Carl Sagan when it came to science communication.  Sagan was fun, but he was a doofus that I remember Johnny Carson making fun of constantly.  Nobody made fun of Crichton.  All the way up to Steven Spielberg — they listened and respected him when he spoke.  

I weighed in last week on the environmental site Ensia arguing that, yes, Crichton did bad things in promoting the anti-environmental agenda in his final decade, but before he was bad, he was good.  He offered up powerful insights on the communication of science, but scientists were basically blind to him.

The science community can be blind at times.  Science suffers from a lack of leadership.  A good leader would have, in 1980, known that communication was already being identified as a major challenge to science, which it was — I remember it vividly, it’s when I first started getting interested in the subject.  Anyone with an open mind would have surveyed the landscape, spotted Crichton’s split background of science and cinema, plus seeing that his 1975 paper on “Medical Obfuscation,” showed that he already knew the problem — then set to work doing whatever it took to recruit him to be a major constructive, positive asset to science.

But that didn’t happen.  Here’s at least three reasons why.

 

THREE REASONS WHY CRICHTON WAS IGNORED

1) IVORY TOWER –  Michael Crichton left the Ivory Tower of academia in the late 1970’s.  As soon as you do that, you’re viewed as inferior.  It’s an age old syndrome.  It’s simply what academics do.  It even happens when you stay in the Ivory Tower and dabble outside of it as Carl Sagan did.  Academics look down on non-academics.  How do I know?  Because I did it when I was a tenured professor of marine biology.  I thought people at government agencies were second rate — people who couldn’t cut it in academia.  That wasn’t based on experience, it was the mindset drilled into me by the faculty and grad students above me.  There is no avoiding it.  When you go to church, you are programmed with the doctrine.  Academia is a church.  Furthermore, Crichton went to Hollywood, meaning he joined the circus.  Nobody wants to seek the wisdom of a Hollywood clown.

2) HERO WORSHIP –  Scientists love being worshipped.  It’s another age old syndrome.  And again, I know this because I was one.  They gather their knowledge, then hold it over the heads of the public.  It’s fun!  It’s a game the public likes to play as well — turn to the scientists, as if they are the mystical, flawless soothsayers of our society.  But they aren’t.  They make a mess of just as much stuff as average citizens.  Furthermore, today’s information overloaded society has produced a science world that is filled with massive amounts of publication flaws and shortcomings.  It’s all run by humans, there are no flawless heroes.  Again, this was Crichton’s life’s theme.

3) NO LEADERSHIP –  Science is run by committees, top to bottom.  Committees don’t lead, they facilitate.  They don’t come up with good ideas and make them happen, they wait for individuals to come to them with good ideas that they can support or reject.  Given the mountains of money and good times Crichton was having in Hollywood, he wasn’t about to ask a committee if they wanted his help.

The result by 2007 was the dark demise of a brilliant man with a brilliant mind.  He spent the last decade of his life trying to follow the basic practice of his life’s work — which was to question science and scientists.  But this time he found himself ending up as an enemy of science.

Here are 5 sources that I draw on in forming my impression of who Michael Crichton was, and why his life presents a story that the science world, if it really is interested in creating a healthy, human society for the future, should learn from.  Of course I’m probably dreaming, but so was Crichton.

 

FIVE SOURCES OF MY INSIGHTS INTO WHO MICHAEL CRICHTON WAS

1) THE 2007 CHARLIE ROSE INTERVIEW –  everyone should watch this sad, sad record of who Michael Crichton was near the end of his life.  In 2007, a year before his death, Crichton did a final interview with his friend, Charlie Rose (who is now disgraced and disowned for his work place behavior).

You’ll see two things on display.  First, that he had been beaten down by his critics, but also second that he wasn’t a raving madman.  He was very civil, very dignified, very respectful, and was only asking for what the entire practice of science is supposed to be — an exercise in rational thought.  By 2007 he had been the target of a great deal of irrational rage, delivered in the name of science.

Granted, he brought it on himself.  It began with his questioning of the environmental movement, then ultimately ridiculing the movement in his poorly crafted novel, “State of Fear.”  

For me, the act of learning about his writing that novel was like learning that one of your favorite interviewers of smart people turns out to be a serial sexual harasser (Charlie).  The novel wasn’t just transparent in it’s anti-environmental agenda, it was pathetic in it’s lack of human depth of characters.  As much as I’d like to defend Crichton’s questioning of climate science, that novel makes it impossible at a human level.  He proved himself to be utterly tone deaf with it.

But still, he was always civilized and wanting only to be a provocateur.  I think his core problem is that he was designed for a different era where the major discourse took place through written media that had editors who restrained the inner demons of writers.  As I myself experienced in 2005, the internet allowed for the bypassing of editors for many venues, unleashing a Pandora’s Box of hatred on the public in a way that humanity still hasn’t figured out how to deal with (though comedian Ricky Gervais, in his brilliant and aptly titled Netflix special, “Humanity,” has plenty to say about it that’s wonderful).

Crichton spent his last decade as a target and victim of roving packs of online trolls that he never made sense of.

Here’s transcription of some of the most powerful and insightful moments of the interview with regard to the climate issue.  I’ve added red for some of the most interesting bits.

31:00 –  ON THE MEDIA …
Michael Crichton: The media is not interested in a balanced perspective
Charlie Rose:  I am
MC:  But you’re very rare.

32:00 –  ON THE SUBJECT OF AL GORE’S MOVIE …
MC:  If I want to make a movie — that said what he said — I could make a much better movie.
MC:  Attitudinally it (Gore’s movie) is wrong.  It is a scientific matter that we need to look at as dispassionately as possible.

35:00 –  ON AL GORE AND “THE DATA” …
MC:  I think he relies on the expert witness, and I don’t.
CR:  You do the work yourself?
MC:  Yes
CR:  And you don’t think he does the work himself?
MC:  I don’t think he goes and looks at the data.

35:50 – ON THE FUTURE …
MC:  I believe the future is unknowable.
MC:  Climate, according to the last UN report, is a coupled, chaotic, non-linear system.  They say long term prediction of climate is not possible.

36:30 –  ON THE NEED FOR DRAMA …
MC:  Most people I know haven’t looked at the data at all.

37:00
MC:  People always — it’s not just America — people line up for the catastrophe.

37:30
MC:  I’ve done this as a test — sit down at a dinner party and say, “The world is coming to an end and you get immediately the aroused attention at the table.  Alternatively you say, basically everything is good. The world is getting better …
CR:  Nobody cares.
MC:  No, they get angry.  Or they turn away.  It’s not what we want to hear.  We want to hear disaster.
CR:  But isn’t that true about writing books and making movies?
MC:  Yeah.  Crisis.  Crisis.  Tension.  Drama.   You don’t want to read a story that doesn’t have a story.  That doesn’t have consequences.

39:00 –  ON HIS OWN COURAGE …
MC:  I didn’t want to write it.  I decided I wouldn’t write it.  I said “I’ll keep my opinions to myself.”  I had breakfast with a scientist friend of mine I hadn’t seen for 30 years.  He said you have to write it.  I said, “No, no, I’m gonna get killed for this.”  I’d like to say as a result of that conversation I decided to write it.  I went home and thought, “You know, I’m not writing this.  I’ll keep my opinion to myself.”  I started to work on something else and I felt like a coward.

39:50 –  ON REDUCING EMISSIONS …
CR:  You’re not arguing we shouldn’t reduce the amount of fossil fuel we’re putting in the atmosphere?
MC:  No.
CR:  You’d be happy with tougher standards on auto emissions and all that stuff?
MC:  Should have done it decades ago.  I was in favor of a carbon tax, 25 years ago.  Still waiting for it.  It’s a very logical thing to do.

40:20 –  ON ENVIRONMENTALISM …
MC:  I want an environment that’s great.  I don’t think this is as an important of a problem as other people do.  That’s the essence of it.

50:30 –  ON THE HATRED HE RECEIVED …
MC:  I proud of having done the book about global warming.  I knew everybody was going to be against me, and I thought, this is what I believe, and I’m sorry, and I said it, and I did it, and I’ve taken just flack for it.  You know what, it is what I believe.
CR:  You went into rough seas.
MC:  Very rough seas.  Nasty and personal and brutal and unfair and mean.
CR:  What was nasty and brutal and unfair and mean?
MC:  Oh, Charlie, this is — you want to look at what people will say — for example, when I started talking about genetics, people would say you might get some criticism for this.  Well, I haven’t gotten any criticism for genetics, let me tell you.  I know what criticism is.  But …… I’ve had the experience of having had books in print for 40 years, so I can go back and look at the stand I took when I was in favor of abortion when I was a medical student in Boston in 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade and I can look at that and go was I right or not and I can say dammit I was right.  And when I wrote “State of Fear,” I was imaging, what’s it gonna look like in 40 years?  I think I’m gonna come out just fine.

 

2) MY 28 YEAR FRIENDSHIP WITH A CLOSE ASSOCIATE OF CRICHTON –   In 1992 I met a screenwriter who worked closely with Michael Crichton for 15 years, giving notes on his novels, writing screenplays for his movies, even founding a video game company with him in the late 1990’s.  In 1999 he gave me a copy of Crichton’s AAAS speech before he delivered it.  We’re still close friends.  He’s shared a great deal of insights into what Crichton went through over the years.

 

3) MY EMAILS WITH CRICHTON IN 2007 – In 2007 — the same time as the Charlie Rose interview, a year before Crichton died and I was filming my movie “Sizzle:  A Global Warming Comedy,” my friend introduced me to Michael Crichton via email.  We traded 4 months of emails.  They reflect exactly what he’s saying in the Charlie Rose interview.

I wrote my first email expecting a two sentence reply wishing me well.  What I got back was double the length of my email, saying it was probably already “too late” for the issue of global warming, and with a PS that warned me that the personal politics of global warming would be much worse than what I had encountered with intelligent design.  He was right.

He also warned me at one point, “I am probably the most cynical person on this entire planet.”

There were about 20 emails from him over the next three months.  Suffice it to say it reflected a man who wanted to engage in civilized discussion, but was worn out by all the rage he had endured.  HOWEVER, I do think it’s worth asking how much of that rage was global warming versus the new found killing ground of the internet, blogging and posting comments.  Had he published some of his earlier books in 2004 he probably would have received just as much troll action.

I certainly lived three decades of professional life and never experienced any of the mass insanity that erupted around 2005 with the advent of blogging.  I think Crichton died long before everyone began to realize how mostly stupid and trivial social media arguing ends up being.

One pretty bad element was his line in one email, “Mark my words, four years from now global warming will be the WMD of today.”  He was referring to the over-blown hype around Weapons of Mass Destruction and the war in the middle east.  His quote looks pretty bad 13 years later.  Whoops.

 

4) MIKE STRAUSS –  My Story Circles co-developer Mike Strauss, who worked at AAAS in the 1990’s, was the guy who thought up, made happen, and hosted Crichton’s 1999 keynote speech to AAAS that was so prescient.  He has shared with me all the details of that event — including the A/V problems during his speech (back in the old days of slide projectors that blew bulbs during talks), and the lame Q&A where nobody asked about the speech.  They only wanted to know, “How can we make more Jurassic Park movies that will recruit more kids to science?”

 

5) HIS 2003 CAL TECH LECTURE “ALIENS CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING” –  read his 2003 Cal Tech lecture — it is EXTREMELY smart and most of it hard to argue with.

In the end, Michael Crichton’s downfall was a lack of a deeper sense of people as deeply flawed humans.  It’s reflected in his novels.  He was extremely good with story structure, but at the same time, extremely weak on character development.  

He was a shy, awkward man who really didn’t understand humans as well as might be expected of someone so successful with communicating TO humans.  His novels were stories populated by stick figures.

He didn’t get it when it came to human nature, and is guilty of having done damage to the serious cause of environmentalism in general.  But the climate community still needs to be faulted for being so single minded/myopic as to not having been able to pick out the good from the bad in what he had to say.

That was the point of my Ensia article.  Before he was bad, he was good.  Don’t be so myopic that you can’t look past the bad to make use of what was good.  You don’t have to respect him, just learn from the experience.

#106) “Inconvenient Truth” Sequel: We needed Empire Strikes Back, but we got Clone Wars.

Al Gore is such a tireless worker and a truly good soul, but he continues to surround himself with people who don’t really know what they’re doing. As a result, his new movie isn’t bad, it’s just middling. He is the proverbial “And, And, And” voice — not that there’s anything wrong with it. My brilliant cinematographer buddy Paul Wojciak nailed it on the movie, saying, “We needed Empire Strikes Back, but we got Clone Wars.”

MUCH RESPECT.  The theater rises at the end of Al Gore’s Q&A.

MUCH RESPECT. The theater rises at the end of Al Gore’s Q&A.



AN INCONVENIENT AND, AND, AND-ER

On Saturday I attended a screening of Al Gore’s new movie in Hollywood followed by a rather rigidly controlled Q&A in which the only Q’s came from the host. As expected, the movie was a little bit better than the first one in narrative structure, but not much.

Once again the movie could have told a clean, SINGULAR powerful story, but … alas, it missed. Where does he get these filmmakers — didn’t they ever take any writing classes?

There was a great potential SINGULAR over-arching narrative sitting there waiting to be told which was Gore’s efforts to bring around the India delegation at the Paris Accord on their climate negotiations. The story of them going from “no way” to “yes way” covered about twenty minutes late in the film, but it should have been stretched for the entire movie as the central narrative thread. It was powerful enough.

Instead the movie is largely an “and, and, and” exercise, ambling from exploding glaciers to flooding Miami streets to our democracy being hacked by big money (complains the guy from the party that out-spent their opponents for the past three Presidential elections) — the usual shopping list of climate topics.

I guess they feel like they’re conveying the global aspect of the issue by visiting so many places, but the problem is, if that’s the point you want to convey, then convey it in a single sequence about how global the problem is, not through an ambling narrative structure.

Furthermore, stick to the narrative. Just before the Paris climate meeting the huge terrorist attack took place. It was powerful material, but it was also “off the narrative” of the movie. Yes, Gore gives a very heartfelt speech to the journalists about it, but it’s still OFF THE NARRATIVE. Powerful for powerful’s sake is not the way to tell a clear, focused story. There’s just too many amblings and diversions throughout.

Didn’t these filmmakers read the editorial in the NY Times on January 19 pointing out that the Democrats have been sidetracked by trying to accommodate the various needs of a diverse America and thus have failed to promote a unifying narrative.” The movie does the same thing — pursues some sort of “more is more” agenda and ends up with failing to bring home a clear singular experience.



BUILD YOUR CHRISTMAS TREE, THEN PUT SOME ORNAMENTS ON IT

Political strategist Dave Gold — one of my newest heroes — has a very simple way to convey narrative structure. He published a great article in Politico in February telling the Democrats to lighten up on the metrics, focus more on story. He says your central narrative is the Christmas tree, the issues are the ornaments.

Gore’s Christmas tree should have been the India challenge. The movie should have opened in Paris — the Ordinary World — all the nations coming together to solve the climate problem. Then it should have made clear WHAT’S AT STAKE — why Paris mattered, what will happen if there’s not an agreement — who the major players are. It should have made us feel like everything is on track, just fine, BUT THEN … the India delegation says basically you people had your 150 years of burning fossil fuels, now it’s our turn.

That moment should have happened about 15 minutes in. We should have then gone to India to see the consequences of global warming, heard from some of the people behind that attitude, learned about why their delegate would have said that and what it might take to change it. So much that could have been so logical and made for a great journey.

Instead the movie doesn’t even go to Paris until about halfway through. The India storyline emerges around an hour in. What are they thinking — that telling a story is as simple as, “And then, and then, and then …”?



GET THEE TO A STORY CIRCLE

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a few nice little moments such as the reversal of the India delegation at the Paris meeting, but it all weaves so ineptly back and forth, all over the place. And then ends with narrative poop as we see Gore walk into Trump Tower, obviously for the pathetic meeting he and Leonardo DiCaprio gave the newly elected Trump back in December where Trump clearly was just arrogantly toying with them.

It cuts from Gore entering the building to a close up solo shot of him speaking to someone which obviously must be Trump. This is called THE OBLIGATORY SHOT in filmmaking parlance. If you show us the guy walking into Trump Tower, then Gore blabbering for about a minute, we will connect the dots and know he must be talking to Trump as we get ready for the money shot which is the reverse on Trump. At that point, the Trump shot is obligatory.

BUT … they did nothing of the sort. It was just Al pontificating for too long. No Trump. No money shot. As the Irish commentator on my iPad FIFA game would say after a poor shot on goal, “That’s a complete let off.”

Gore and his filmmakers really should do our Story Circles Narrative Training. Their circle would have figured all these structural elements out. It’s what the story circle does.



EVERYBODY’S A CRITIC

Last year I ripped poor old Marc Morano’s climate skeptic “documentary” on Andy Revkin’s NY Times blog (btw, Doug Parsons just posted his interview with Morano for his America Adapts climate podcast where I join him for the analysis). I criticized his film for the same basic problems — a lack of compelling narrative structure. In his case there were also production shortcomings that were an inevitable result of his limited budget.

For this movie they clearly have all the money in the world for their visual elements, but as my buddy Paul would point out, “Clone Wars” also had the stunning visual effects. It just didn’t have a good story.

Why couldn’t they make “The Empire Strikes Back” for global warming?