WHEN: 7:45am EST, October 6th, 2013
WHERE: In my apartment in Portland, ME
FORMAT: DVD on a 19” AOC LED computer monitor/Digital Download on an iPhone 3
MENTAL STATE: Mildly groggy.
Jurassic Park‘s Ian Malcolm is a wreck. We have established that our suave friend has a poor understanding of chaos theory, and is clueless when it comes to evolution. Alright, so the self-proclaimed chaotician sucks. What now? Well, it’s time to address what makes Malcolm such a bad scientist, and why it matters.
THE UNSCIENTIFIC SCIENTIST:
When I say Ian Malcolm is not very good at science, I’m not just talking about presenting incorrect information. I’m talking about his entirely dogmatic approach to scientific topics.
For example, how does Malcolm know the dinosaurs will get loose? He knows, he says, because the history of evolution has taught him that nature breaks through barriers. He hasn’t analyzed the park’s systems and found faults. He hasn’t compared the park’s set-up to previous installations that have failed to contain animals. No. He has condensed the entire history of the development of life on this planet into a handy aphorism, which he then haphazardly applies to the daily operations of a theme park/zoo. Sorry Hammond, “life finds a way,” evolution said so.
And so he trots along, spewing out buzzwords and bubbling over with snark and self-confidence. His vague, confusing, and often misleading explanations make it difficult to ever follow what he is trying to say, but one thing is clear: Malcolm believes that he is unerringly and absolutely correct. That anyone could ever disagree with him is ridiculous.
Hey, maybe that’s why he laughs so damn much.
But approaching science with a belief in your own infallibility is dangerous. It clouds your judgement, and prevents you from analyzing data impartially. You may have a theory that you’d like to prove, but you still need to do the legwork to find and present evidence to support it. If you’re worth your scientific salt, you’ll also keep a keen eye out for evidence that goes against your theory.
But Malcolm isn’t observing, or recording, or analyzing, or even conjecturing. He’s just preaching the opinions he’s already come to and smugly judging those who don’t agree.
GODS AND DINOSAURS:
“God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.”
Keeping in mind Malcolm’s fast and loose scientific style, what once seemed like a fun, tongue-in-cheek joke now takes on a sadly ironic twist. Ian sits there lightly mocking a creationist worldview, while his own facade of faux-science affords no more shades of grey. By fervently brandishing his faulty conclusions, he has inadvertently become a perfect piece of evidence for those who support that rotten old chestnut: “Science is just another religion.”
Of course, religion and science are polar opposites. One demands steadfast faith in an unchanging view of the world; the other is a constant endeavor to better understand the world world we live in, requiring a willingness to throw out old conclusions if contradicted by new evidence. There is no divine scientific word. Even highly regarded scientists, while greatly respected for their contributions, are never assumed to be infallible. Conceptions of how the universe operates are painstakingly put together from generations of careful, systematic observation. So, it should give us pause when a man calling himself a scientist spends more time personifying scientific concepts and putting words in their mouths than he does explaining how he reached his conclusions.
“Nature selected them for extinction.”
“John doesn’t subscribe to chaos theory, especially what it has to say about his little science experiment.”
“Life finds a way.”
These are are a few of Malcolm’s responses when his vague views are questioned. He’s treating fields of scientific study as though they are deities whose will he can divine. He provides no logical argument. His statements bear no resemblance to actual scientific discourse (you know, the type you might expect from an expert consulting on the safety risks of a bio-engineering breakthrough). In fact, they remind me of a different kind of discourse altogether:
“Heaven needed another angel.”
“If God wanted man to fly, he would have given him wings.”
“Faith can move mountains.”
I’ll say it; Dr. Ian Malcolm’s conversation is on the same level as trite platitudes.
By presenting arguments without any substance and then treating people who don’t listen to him like fools, Malcolm stands to affirm some people’s suspicions that “belief in evolution requires just as much faith as belief in God.”
WHY DOES IT MATTER?:
So what if Malcolm’s version of science doesn’t look much different from dogmatic religion? It’s just a movie. Movie science is notoriously bad. If Jeff Goldblum can hack an alien spacecraft with his Apple PowerBook in Independence Day, why should we care about how his views on science are portrayed in Jurassic Park?
Science = plot convenience, right?
We should care, because Jurassic Park is very different from Independence Day in one major area: Jurassic Park pretends to be plausible. Like most of Michael Crichton‘s work, a large part of Jurassic Park‘s appeal is that it claims to be closer to science fact than science fiction. Crichton’s novels are filled with little morsels of fact that make it appear as though real science and technology are turning the wheels of the plot. There are bibliographies at the end of many of his books. His thrillers are thrilling because you feel like they could actually happen.
But that thrill comes with a price: responsibility. If you present a fictional work that claims to be based on real-world science, you need to have your facts straighter than those who present stories that are fully and unabashedly fictional.
Should you doubt that anyone could mistake a Crichton novel for a representation of scientific research, take a look at Ken Ham. For those of you who haven’t come across him before, Ken Ham is one of the most vocal proponents of young earth creationism (belief in a literal six-day creation, 6000 years ago, as laid out in the first couple chapters of Genesis).
Let not the cool Raptor head deceive you, this guy is less of a scientist than Malcolm.
You may have heard of his Answers in Genesis seminars, seen him interviewed in Bill Maher’s Religulous, or viewed this sadly humorous YouTube recut of one of his lectures. In any event, Ken Ham has a large following within the Christian community. He also cites Michael Crichton’s The Lost World as a scientific document in one of his pamphlets.
That’s right. One of the leading opponents of evolution is going to a pulp fiction writer for his facts. While the information he’s taking from the book (the size of certain dinosaurs) is fairly innocuous, it highlights the power these stories have. If a leader in the creationist community takes The Lost World for a respected scientific text, what might an average kid think of Jurassic Park with all its labs, jargon, and scientists?
Pop culture is how children find out about the adult world, and while it’s hard to mess up portrayals of cops and firefighters, how are kids going to be introduced to scientists? Most aren’t out there watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Movies like Jurassic Park may be all they’ve got, and the more seriously a movie takes itself, the more likely it is to be taken as a realistic depiction.
“See Mom, being a scientist is easy. You just have to belittle people and flirt a bunch.”
Filling an island with dinosaurs isn’t the only type of irresponsibility out there. Words have consequences too. By making Ian Malcolm the film’s mouthpiece for evolution and chaos theory, the screenwriters did a disservice not just to those two fields, but to science in general.
Malcolm treats science like an all-knowing god, in whose service he serves as priest. But scientific knowledge doesn’t come from some mystical spring; it is hard won, and built on years of research, testing, and analysis. Perhaps it seems like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here, but when the Ken Hams of the world are taking this type of fiction seriously, we should take note. Popular entertainment has a powerful influence over society, and we should be aware of the messages the films we watch are sending. I still love Jurassic Park, but after careful consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse Ian Malcolm.