It's chaos: Ian Malcolm on Science

Updated: Jan 26

Science is sublime, but it is not infallible. As with any other aspect of life, there is a lot to criticize about science. Today I will address the commentaries by one of the most compelling characters in the sci-fi genre, Jurassic Park's Dr. Ian Malcolm.

Let’s talk about the science of fiction.

Jurassic Park, the novel by Michael Crichton, was released in 1990. Soon after, Steven Spielberg adapted it to the big screens in the homonymous movie we all know and love. The story is about the construction of an amusement park in which the main attraction is dinosaurs. But you knew this already.

Instead of dinosaurs and the question of bringing extinct species to life, let's dissect one of the character’s criticisms of science: the chaos-advocate Dr. Ian Malcolm.

Both in the novel and in the movie, Dr. Ian Malcolm is a peculiar, opinionated character, tho in the movie Jeff Goldblum portrays him as charmingly quirky and makes him slightly more lovable and definitely a fan favorite.

Dr. Malcolm is a mathematician expert in chaos theory. He wears all black, speaks with eloquence, and never shuts up about how bad an idea the construction of a Jurassic Park is. He predicts the trouble ahead when visitors, he among them, go inspect the location, although he does not know what is said trouble. (A running joke in Academia: mathematicians know there's one unique solution to the problem but cannot find it.)

SPOILER (but is it really?): dinosaurs go free and eat people.

In one particular moment in the novel, Dr. Malcolm, fed up with the arrogance shown by the park’s founder, gives a passionate speech about the wrongness of science. One criticism that clicked with many readers.

In the novel, he argues that the problem with science is that scientists experiment with power long before they acquire wisdom to deal with it. I like the parallel he draws. A karate fighter takes years of discipline and hard work to get their black belt and to be able to kill a person with their bare hands. But when the time comes for them become a master, they had attained the prudence to use their abilities with responsibility. The effort put into the journey makes the end result too precious to waste. “The person who kills,” he says, “is the person who has no discipline, no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special.”

“Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power.” (Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park)

In his comparison, he says that, likewise, scientific power is obtained without discipline, “like inherited wealth.” A scientist just has to stand on the shoulders of giants, as he puts it. “You read what others have done, and you take the next step. You can do it very young. You can make progress very fast. There is no discipline lasting many decades. There is no mastery: old scientists are ignored. There is no humility before nature. There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy. Cheat, lie, falsify—it doesn’t matter. Not to you, or to your colleagues. No one will criticize you. No one has any standards. They are all trying to do the same thing: to do something big, and do it fast.”

This is where we part thoughts. As a scientist myself, I cannot assent to the idea that there is no hard work and no discipline involved in becoming a scientist. It takes four to five years as an undergrad, plus two years to become a master, and four more to get a Ph.D. After that, three to ten years of postdoctoral training until you have enough experience to compete for a permanent position. One cannot do it without dedication (full-time, in most cases) and perspicacity. It is way longer than the time needed to achieve the status of a karate master.

Is Dr. Malcolm's criticism totally baseless?

No. As the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there's fire. During the Cold War, scientific growth came at the expense of more philosophical renderings. The “shut up and calculate” method prevailed, and speed was indeed rewarded. It still is. Academia really needs to re-evaluate its priorities. Sadly, this rush for productivity negatively impacts the mental health of our scientists.

It is not true, however, that scientists do not care about the consequences of their work. There are ethical guidelines in every field of knowledge. However, it can be hard to predict the future. More specifically, the misuse of technology. There is an anecdote about Michael Faraday and his work on electromagnetism; a senior politician saw one of Faraday's demonstrations of induction and asked, "What good is it?" to which Faraday replied, "I don't know. But soon you'll be able to tax it."

And, before I forget it, scientists most certainly do not rush to get rich quickly, lol. Really, if you want lots of money, do not follow an academic career.

Disclaimer: there are exceptions to every rule. It is no different in science.

Fortunately, imagining abusage and mishandling of technology is great for science-fiction writers. So yay!

See you next post!



Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.

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