Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


State of Fear by Michael Crichton


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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What genre provides fiction with footnotes? We may have to call that the Crichtonian genre. Consistent with readers’ expectations, Michael Crichton’s latest novel, State of Fear, provides suspense, technical detail, and a new twist: footnotes to support Crichton’s personal views. The subject matter is global warming, and Crichton’s premise is that there are scientists with vested interests in maintaining a perpetual state of fear. To achieve their goals, they manipulate data. They maintain a constant media buzz, whether the facts are in their favor or not.


Here’s an excerpt, all of the chapter titled, “Santa Monica, Wednesday, October 13, 9:33 a.m.,” pp. 451-460:


They were sitting on a bench across the street from the conference hall, just beyond the milling crowds near the entrance. It was a busy scene, but Hoffman ignored everything around him. He spoke rapidly, with great animation, moving his hands so wildly that he often slapped Evans in the chest, but he never seemed to notice.

“Ten years ago, I began with fashion and slang,” he said, “the latter being of course a kind of verbal fashion. I wanted to know the determi­nants of change in fashion and speech. What I quickly found is that there are no identifiable determinants. Fashions change for arbitrary reasons and although there are regularities—cycles, periodicities, and correlations— these are merely descriptive, not explanatory. Are you following me?”

“I think so,” Evans said.

“In any case, I realized that these periodicities and correlations could be regarded as systems in themselves. Or if you will, ecosystems. I tested that hypothesis and found it heuristically valuable. Just as there is an ecology of the natural world, in the forests and mountains and oceans, so too there is an ecology of the man-made world of mental abstractions, ideas, and thought. That is what I have studied.”

“I see.”

“Within modern culture, ideas constantly rise and fall. For a while everybody believes something, and then, bit by bit, they stop believing it. Eventually, no one can remember the old idea, the way no one can remember the old slang. Ideas are themselves a kind of fad, you see.”

“I understand, Professor, but why—”

“Why do ideas fall out of favor, you are wondering?” Hoffman said. He was talking to himself. “The answer is simply—they do. In fashion, as in natural ecology, there are disruptions. Sharp revisions of the estab­lished order. A lightning fire burns down a forest. A different species springs up in the charred acreage. Accidental, haphazard, unexpected, abrupt change. That is what the world shows us on every side.”

“Professor. . .“

“But just as ideas can change abruptly, so, too, can they hang on past their time. Some ideas continue to be embraced by the public long after scientists have abandoned them. Left brain, right brain is a perfect exam­ple. In the 1970s, it gains popularity from the work of Sperry at Caltech, who studies a specific group of brain-surgery patients. His findings have no broader meaning beyond these patients. Sperry denies any broader meaning. By 1980, it is clear that the left and right brain notion is just wrong—the two sides of the brain do not work separately in a healthy person. But in the popular culture, the concept does not die for another twenty years. People talk about it, believe it, write books about it for decades after scientists have set it aside.”

“Yes, all very interesting—”

“Similarly, in environmental thought, it was widely accepted in 1960 that there is something called ‘the balance of nature.’ If you just left nature alone it would come into a self-maintaining state of balance. Lovely idea with a long pedigree. The Greeks believed it three thousand years ago, on the basis of nothing. Just seemed nice. “However, by 1990, no scientist believes in the balance of nature anymore. The ecologists have all given it up as simply wrong. Untrue. A fantasy. They speak now of dynamic disequilibrium, of multiple equilibrium states. But they now understand that nature is never in balance. Never has been, never will be. On the contrary, nature is always out of balance, and that means—”

“Professor,” Evans said, “I’d like to ask you—”

“That means that mankind, which was formerly defined as the great disrupter of the natural order, is nothing of the sort. The whole envi­ronment is being constantly disrupted all the time anyway.”

“But George Morton.. .“

“Yes, yes, you wonder what I discussed with George Morton. I am coming to that. We are not off topic. Because of course, Morton wanted to know about environmental ideas. And particularly the idea of envi­ronmental crisis.”

“What did you tell him?”

“If you study the media, as my graduate students and I do, seeking to find shifts in normative conceptualization, you discover something extremely interesting. We looked at transcripts of news programs of the major networks—NBC, ABC, CBS. We also looked at stories in the newspapers of New York, Washington, Miami, Los Angeles, and Seattle. We counted the frequency of certain concepts and terms used by the media. The results were very striking.” He paused.

“What did you find?” Evans said, taking his cue.

“There was a major shift in the fall of 1989. Before that time, the media did not make excessive use of terms such as crisis, catastrophe, cat­aclysm, plague, or disaster For example, during the 1 980s, the word crisis appeared in news reports about as often as the word budget. In addition, prior to 1989, adjectives such as dire, unprecedented, dreaded were not common in television reports or newspaper headlines. But then it all changed.”

“In what way?”

“These terms started to become more and more common. The word catastrophe was used five times more often in 1995 than it was in 1985. Its use doubled again by the year 2000. And the stories changed, too. There was a heightened emphasis on fear, worry, danger, uncertainty, panic.”

“Why should it have changed in 1989?”

“Ah. A good question. Critical question. In most respects 1989 seemed like a normal year: a Soviet sub sank in Norway; Tiananmen Square in China; the Exxon Valdez; Salmon Rushdie sentenced to death; Jane Fonda, Mike Tyson, and Bruce Springsteen all got divorced; the Episcopal Church hired a female bishop; Poland allowed striking unions; Voyager went to Neptune; a San Francisco earthquake flattened high­ways; and Russia, the US, France, and England all conducted nuclear tests. A year like any other. But in fact the rise in the use of the term cri­sis can be located with some precision in the autumn of 1989. And it seemed suspicious that it should coincide so closely with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Which happened on November ninth of that year.”

Hoffman fell silent again, looking at Evans in a significant way. Very pleased with himself.

Evans said, “I’m sorry, Professor. I don’t get it.”

“Neither did we. At first we thought the association was spurious.

But it wasn’t. The Berlin Wall marks the collapse of the Soviet empire.

And the end of the Cold War that had lasted for half a century in the


Another silence. Another pleased look.

“I’m sorry,” Evans said finally. “I was thirteen years old then, and. . .“ He shrugged. “I don’t see where you are leading.”

“I am leading to the notion of social control, Peter. To the require­ment of every sovereign state to exert control over the behavior of its cit­izens, to keep them orderly and reasonably docile. To keep them driving on the right side of the road—or the left, as the case may be. To keep them paying taxes. And of course we know that social control is best managed through fear.”


“Fear,” Evans said.

“Exactly. For fifty years, Western nations had maintained their citi­zens in a state of perpetual fear. Fear of the other side. Fear of nuclear war. The Communist menace. The Iron Curtain. The Evil Empire. And within the Communist countries, the same in reverse. Fear of us. Then, suddenly, in the fall of 1989, it was all finished. Gone, vanished. Over The fall of the Berlin Wall created a vacuum of fear. Nature abhors a vacuum. Something had to fill it.”

Evans frowned. “You’re saying that environmental crises took the place of the Cold War?”

“That is what the evidence shows. Of course, now we have radical fundamentalism and post—9/l 1 terrorism to make us afraid, and those are certainly real reasons for fear, but that is not my point. My point is, there is always a cause for fear. The cause may change over time, but the fear is always with us. Before terrorism we feared the toxic environment. Before that we had the Communist menace. The point is, although the specific cause of our fear may change, we are never without the fear itself. Fear pervades society in all its aspects. Perpetually.”

He shifted on the concrete bench, turning away from the crowds.

“Has it ever occurred to you how astonishing the culture of Western society really is? Industrialized nations provide their citizens with unprecedented safety, health, and comfort. Average life spans increased fifty percent in the last century. Yet modern people live in abject fear. They are afraid of strangers, of disease, of crime, of the environment. They are afraid of the homes they live in, the food they eat, the technol­ogy that surrounds them. They are in a particular panic over things they can’t even see—germs, chemicals, additives, pollutants. They are timid, nervous, fretful, and depressed. And even more amazingly, they are con­vinced that the environment of the entire planet is being destroyed around them. Remarkable! Like the belief in witchcraft, it’s an extraor­dinary delusion—a global fantasy worthy of the Middle Ages. Everything is going to hell, and we must all live in fear. Amazing.

“How has this world view been instilled in everybody? Because although we imagine we live in different nations—France, Germany, Japan, the US—in fact, we inhabit exactly the same state, the State of Fear. How has that been accomplished?”

Evans said nothing. He knew it wasn’t necessary.

“Well, I shall tell you how,” he said. “In the old days—before your time, Peter—citizens of the West believed their nation-states were dominated by something called the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower warned Americans against it in the 1960s, and after two world wars Europeans knew very well what it meant in their own coun­tries. But the military-industrial complex is no longer the primary driver of society. In reality, for the last fifteen years we have been under the control of an entirely new complex, far more powerful and far more pervasive. I call it the politico-legal-media complex. The PLM. And it is dedicated to promoting fear in the population—under the guise of promoting safety.”

“Safety is important.”

“Please. Western nations are fabulously safe. Yet people do not feel they are, because of the PLM. And the PLM is powerful and stable, pre­cisely because it unites so many institutions of society. Politicians need fears to control the population. Lawyers need dangers to litigate, and make money. The media need scare stories to capture an audience. Together, these three estates are so compelling that they can go about their business even if the scare is totally groundless. If it has no basis in fact at all. For instance, consider silicon breast implants.”

Evans sighed, shaking his head. “Breast implants?”

“Yes. You will recall that breast implants were claimed to cause cancer and autoimmune diseases. Despite statistical evidence that this was not true, we saw high-profile news stories, high-profile lawsuits, high-profile political hearings. The manufacturer, Dow Corning, was hounded out of the business after paying $3.2 billion, and juries awarded huge cash payments to plaintiffs and their lawyers.

“Four years later, definitive epidemiological studies showed beyond a doubt that breast implants did not cause disease. But by then the cri­sis had already served its purpose, and the PLM had moved on, a rav­enous machine seeking new fears, new terrors. I’m telling you, this is the way modern society works—by the constant creation of fear. And there is no countervailing force. There is no system of checks and balances, no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear. . . .“

“Because we have freedom of speech, freedom of the press.”

“That is the classic PLM answer. That’s how they stay in business,” Hoffman said. “But think. If it is not all right to falsely shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, why is it all right to shout ‘Cancer!’ in the pages of The New Yorker? When that statement is not true? We’ve spent more than twenty-five billion dollars to clear up the phony power-line cancer claim.* ‘So what?’ you say. I can see it in your face. You’re thinking, we’re rich, we can afford it. It’s only twenty-five billion dollars. But the fact is that twenty-five billion dollars is more than the total GDP of the poor­est fifty nations of the world combined. Half the world’s population lives on two dollars a day. So that twenty-five billion would be enough to sup­port thirty-four million people for a year. Or we could have helped all the people dying of AIDS in Africa. Instead, we piss it away on a fantasy published by a magazine whose readers take it very seriously. Trust it. It is a stupendous waste of money. In another world, it would be a criminal waste. One could easily imagine another Nuremberg trial—this time for the relentless squandering of Western wealth on trivialities—and com­plete with pictures of the dead babies in Africa and Asia that result.”

He hardly paused for breath. “At the very least, we are talking about a moral outrage. Thus we can expect our religious leaders and our great humanitarian figures to cry out against this waste and the needless deaths around the world that result. But do any religious leaders speak out? No. Quite the contrary, they join the chorus. They promote ‘What Would Jesus Drive?’ As if they have forgotten that what Jesus would drive is the false prophets and fearmongers out of the temple.”

He was getting quite heated now.

“We are talking about a situation that is profoundly immoral. It is dis­gusting, if truth be told. The PLM callously ignores the plight of the poorest and most desperate human beings on our planet in order to keep fat politicians in office, rich news anchors on the air, and conniving lawyers in Mercedes-Benz convertibles. Oh, and university professors in Volvos. Let’s not forget them.”

“How’s that?” Evans said. “What does this have to do with university professors?”

“Well, that’s another discussion.”

“Is there a short version?” Evans said.

“Not really. That’s why headlines aren’t news, Peter. But I will try to be succinct,” he said. “The point is this: the world has changed in the last fifty years. We now live in the knowledge society; the information soci­ety, whatever you want to call it. And it has had enormous impact on our universities.

“Fifty years ago, if you wanted to lead what was then called ‘the life of the mind,’ meaning to be an intellectual, to live by your wits, you had to work in a university. The society at large had no place for you. A few newspaper reporters, a few magazine journalists could be considered as living by their wits, but that was about it. Universities attracted those who willingly gave up worldly goods to live a cloistered intellectual life, teaching timeless values to the younger generation. Intellectual work was the exclusive province of the university.

“But today, whole sectors of society live the life of the mind. Our entire economy is based on intellectual work, now. Thirty-six percent of workers are knowledge workers. That’s more than are employed in man­ufacturing. And when professors decided they would no longer teach young people, but leave that task to their graduate students who knew much less than they did and spoke English poorly—when that happened, the universities were thrown into crisis. What good were they anymore? They had lost their exclusive hold on the life of the mind. They no longer taught the young. Only so many theoretical texts on the semiotics of Foucault could be published in any single year. What was to become of our universities? What relevance did they have in the modern era?”

He stood up, as if energized by this question. Then abruptly, he sat down again.

“What happened,” he continued, “is the universities transformed themselves in the 1 980s. Formerly bastions of intellectual freedom in a world of Babbittry, formerly the locus of sexual freedom and experi­mentation, they now became the most restrictive environments in modern society. Because they had a new role to play. They became the creators of new fears for the PLM. Universities today are factories of fear. They invent all the new terrors and all the new social anxieties. All the new restrictive codes. Words you can’t say. Thoughts you can’t think. They produce a steady stream of new anxieties, dangers, and social terrors to be used by politicians, lawyers, and reporters. Foods that are bad for you. Behaviors that are unacceptable. Can’t smoke, can’t swear, can’t screw, can’t think. These institutions have been stood on their heads in a generation. It is really quite extraordinary.

“The modern State of Fear could never exist without universities feeding it. There is a peculiar neo-Stalinist mode of thought that is required to support all this, and it can thrive only in a restrictive setting, behind closed doors, without due process. In our society, only universities have created that—so far. The notion that these institutions are liberal is a cruel joke. They are fascist to the core, I’m telling you.”

He broke off and pointed down the walkway. “Who is this fellow pushing toward us through the crowd? He looks oddly familiar.”

Evans said, “That’s Ted Bradley, the actor.”

“Where have I seen him?”

“He plays the president on television.”

“Oh yes. Him.”

Ted came to a halt in front of them, panting. “Peter,” he said, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Is your cell phone on?”

“No, because—”

“Sarah has been trying to reach you. She says it’s important. We have to leave town right away. And bring your passport.”

Evans said, “We? What does this have to do with you?”

“I’m coming with you,” Ted said.


As they started to walk away, Hoffman clutched at Evans’s sleeve, holding him back. He had a new thought. “We haven’t talked about involution,” he said.


“It is the next step in the development of nation-states. Indeed it is already happening. You must see the irony. After all, twenty-five billion dollars and ten years later the same rich elitists who were terrified of power-line cancer are buying magnets to strap to their ankles or put on their mattresses—imported Japanese magnets are the best, the most expensive—in order to enjoy the healthful effects of magnetic fields. The same magnetic fields—only now they can’t get enough of them!”

“Professor,” Evans said, “I have to go.”

“Why don’t these people just lie back against a TV screen? Snuggle up to a kitchen appliance? All the things that terrified them before.”

“We’ll talk later,” Evans said, pulling his arm away.

“They even sell magnets in the health magazines! Healthy living through magnetic fields! Insanity! No one remembers even a few years ago! George Orwell. No memory!”

“Who is that guy?” Bradley said, as they headed off. “He seems a little wound up, doesn’t he?”


* Estimate from the ‘White House Science Office for all costs of the scare, including property devaluation and relocation of power lines. Cited in Park, Voodoo Science, p. 161. (Park was a participant in the controversy.)


Crichton comes across as more preachy than usual in State of Fear, but his points about the manipulation of scientific data rang true. For readers who want to come away from a novel thinking about issues, State of Fear is a reasonable way to spend some time.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2005 issue of Executive Times


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