Crichton vs. Crowley: Dinosaurs, Pedophiles, and The Cult of Expertise

At first I laughed when I read of the novelist Michael Crichton's attack on Washington Political reporter Michael Crowley (Felicia R. Lee, "Columnist Accuses Crichton of Literary 'Hit-and-Run'", New York Times, 12/14/06). How utterly bizarre. It seems that in his latest novel, "Next," Crichton has invented a character, "Mick Crowley," who bears certain odd similarities to the real Crowley, including--in addition to the name--being a Yale educated Washington political reporter. The difference--at least we hope it's a difference--is that this fictional Mick Crowley is also a child molester! (And one with a small penis at that.)

But maybe I have a weird sense of humor. Crichton's attack seems at first glance not only inexcusable, but incomprehensible. Crowley attributes it to an article, critical of Crichton, that he published in the New Republic in March ("Jurassic President," 3/20/06-3/27/06). But Crichton has never been a favorite of literary critics (I'm no fan myself), and I'm sure he's suffered plenty of adverse criticism in his day. Why wouldn't he just let this one roll off his back? What makes this case so different, that he should feel the need to respond in what seems like such an underhanded way?

Well, the first thing I noticed about Crowley's article is that it does have a noticeably ad hominem tenor to it. Though he discusses Crichton's political views, most notably the novelist's skepticism regarding global warming, Crowley doesn't bother offering any arguments against these views. (By the way, I'm on Crowley's side on the global warming issue.) Instead, he makes two basic points: 1. that Crichton's politics boil down to an unfounded critique of the cult of expertise; and 2. Crichton himself belongs (albeit illegitimately) to that selfsame cult. Thus Crichton is a hypocrite and no one (least of all policy-makers) should take his opinions seriously. On the first point, Crowley writes:

During his career, Crichton has relentlessly propagandized on behalf of one big idea: that experts--scientists, intellectuals, reporters and bureaucrats--are spectacularly corrupt and spectacularly wrong.

(Well, Crichton does have a point.) And on the second:

What Crichton's worldview really amounts to is a kind of hectoring contrarianism that is increasingly targeted at America's know-it-alls, against the liberal elite, against the very type of expertise that had given him his professional cachet.

But what Crowley is really pissed off about is that Crichton seems to be getting through to the people who make the decisions:

By trashing the conventionally trained expert, Crichton has helped create an anti-intellectual ethos where the country's most powerful political leaders can embrace a science fiction writer as a great authority.

So here we see the real crux of the matter: Crowley doesn't think a novelist is qualified to comment on matters of national importance. (It's here that I take exception. Novelists are experts of empathy, of viewing matters from the perspective of diverse characters. Crichton is also a medical doctor, by the way, so he's not unfamiliar with science.) The politicians should be listening to Crowley, I suppose, the real expert, but they're not; they're listening to a novelist.

And to add insult to injury, what the politicians are listening to is Crichton's attack on Crowley's own cult!

At the end of his article, after having accused Crichton repeatedly of being a hack writer of potboilers (and once again I must confess myself to be in sympathy with this charge), Crowley advances his own overripe literary metaphor: Crichton is like a dinosaur that has busted out of Jurassic Park:

In this sense, he himself is like an experiment gone wrong--a creation of the publishing industry and Hollywood who has unexpectedly mutated into a menacing figure haunting think tanks, policy forums, hearing rooms, and even the Oval Office.

The import of this metaphor seems to be that Crichton is a monster and a bully, running roughshod over the reasoned debate of trained professionals. Though the accusation of child molestation remains indefensible, in order to set the record straight it needs to be seen in the proper context: Crichton is just hurling a similar insult (that of monster-and-bully-hood) back at Crowley.

And of course the small penis quip is just Crichton's way of claiming that he has the bigger gun in this literary pissing match.

Ed Hamilton: