The Lebedev Syndrome

Phil Hansten | November 18, 2015

"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

Phil Hansten

In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, one of the least appealing characters is a fellow named Lebedev, a man who could pontificate on any topic. I was reminded of Lebedev following a recent discussion I had with a friend on the topic of climate change. My friend pointed out that, although he didn’t claim to understand the science of climatology, he did think Michael Crichton’s novels expressing skepticism about human-caused global warming made sense.

Now, to say Michael Crichton had remarkable talent and intelligence is a bit of an understatement. He graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, sold 200 million books, had colossal successes in television (ER) and film (Jurassic Park), and he won an Emmy, a Peabody, and an Academy Award. And this is only a partial list of his awards and accomplishments.

Unfortunately, however, therein lies the problem. People with that kind of success tend to have great difficulty in recognizing their limitations, and often have Lebedevian proclivities. Nobel Prize winners are notorious for this human foible. William Shockley (transistor) and James Watson (DNA), for example, both claimed there was strong evidence that some races were inherently less intelligent, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Linus Pauling thought vitamin C could prevent many human ills. Other Nobel laureates have similarly ventured far afield to weigh in on topics about which they know very little.

Unfortunately, however, therein lies the problem. People with that kind of success tend to have great difficulty in recognizing their limitations, and often have Lebedevian proclivities. Nobel Prize winners are notorious for this human foible.

Crichton apparently suffered from this same delusion… assuming that his astonishing success somehow allowed him to understand an exceedingly complex topic that was outside of his expertise. He was trained as a physician, not a climate scientist, and his skeptical views on climate change were thoroughly debunked by qualified climatologists. Crichton weighing in on the science of climate change makes about as much sense as me weighing in on quantum mechanics; I simply do not have the requisite training or understanding.

It would appear that people who pontificate on issues outside their field suffer from a humility deficiency. They would have no doubt profited from reading sixteenth century French thinker, Michel de Montaigne. Notoriously humble despite his obvious wisdom, Montaigne talked about how he eschewed topics about which he knew little: “…sounding the ford from a good distance; and then, finding it too deep for my height, I stick to the bank.” Would that Shockley, Watson, Pauling, and Crichton had the wisdom to stick to the bank as well.

Crichton was also vindictive; when a columnist criticized him on the climate change issue, Crichton put the columnist in a new novel as a pervert with a small penis who raped a 2-year-old boy. Not cool. It takes a pretty small person to do something like that rather than to debate the person who disagreed with him in an open forum. (I assume my criticism will not result in a similar fate for me since Crichton is no longer with us.)

Crichton had every right to question the findings of climatologists, of course. The problem is that—although he did not have a deep and nuanced understanding of climatology—his fame gave him a voice in the world that was orders of magnitude louder than that of those who are truly qualified: climatologists. And that is problematic for one simple reason… probability. It is overwhelmingly more probable that the climatologists are correct than that Crichton was correct.

Look at any scientific discipline during the past century; it is not unusual for people outside the discipline to snipe at the scientists within the discipline. On exceedingly rare occasions, the outsiders turn out to be more right than the scientists. But the question for the climate change issue is whether we are willing to bet the farm on the very slim chance that the climate change deniers are right. Basing public policy on the pronouncements of climate change deniers is like society putting all its money on a single number in roulette; we might win, but it is much more likely that we will lose big.

Basing public policy on the pronouncements of climate change deniers is like society putting all its money on a single number in roulette; we might win, but it is much more likely that we will lose big.

Mark Twain once said, “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.” Michael Crichton “supposed” that climate change does not represent an existential threat to humanity. But he did not “find out” if his position was scientifically valid. It wasn’t.

Blaise Pascal’s observation is again apropos: “So let us work on thinking well; that is the principle of morality.” The list of “not thinking well” on climate change is long: Michael Crichton, Fox News, most of the Republican candidates for president, fossil fuel corporations, a billionaire brother team (who shall remain nameless, lest I have to buy one of those mirrors to check under my car every morning), and countless “regular folks” who believe the propaganda spewed by the aforementioned voices. According to Pascal’s calculus these people are not thinking well and are taking an immoral position on a vital public policy question. In my opinion, Pascal is absolutely right.


  1. I would expect that a website devoted to helping get Ernest Becker’s message to world, would be the last place to find self-delusion and hypocrisy. Basically, you are making a case for us (Michael Crichton included) to bow down before the altar of orthodox climate change doctrine. You can’t ant once challenge people to examine their self-deluding cultural hero systems, and not at the same time cling to your own delusions on climate change. You want people to do what exactly? Pledge their allegiance to the church of climate change or suffer at judgement day (judgement day being when the earth’s temperature rises by 2 degrees flooding some areas of Bangladesh, while at the same time creating a longer growing season and providing life for millions more humans). What are we really praying for here?

    • I am saddened by this response. One would think that (paid?) trolls would not write on this site, but I guess the tentacles of those who profit from climate change denial reach everywhere. Some people say that those sponsoring climate change denial are just like those who supported the denial of the dangers of tobacco, but that is only partly true. The climate change denial campaign may have the same goals, but it much better funded and organized. It has funded trolls, virtually every elected Republican, and has mouthpieces (Fox News, hate radio, etc.) who are willing to say pretty much anything their handlers require. This is nothing new, of course. As Nietzsche said, “… a man who has money and influence can turn any opinion into the public one.”

      “Kevin” obviously has little understanding of science, let alone philosophy of science or the history of science. I started studying the (then) new science of drug interactions in 1965, and am still involved in drug interaction research. This is roughly the same period over which the science of climate change has matured. Over the years, nascent theories about specific drug interactions sometimes proved to be wrong, and the same has happened in climate science. That’s how science works. But the overall theory of how drug interactions occur via inhibition of drug metabolism (the most common mechanism) is so well established with thousands of studies (and with interlocking and reinforcing theories), that there is a vanishingly small chance that the overall theory will be overthrown. Refined and improved, yes. Overthrown, extremely unlikely. It is the same for the overall theory of climate change. There is so much mutually supporting scientific evidence that the chance that it will be overthrown is miniscule. Not zero… just miniscule.

      How does this translate it to concrete action? Well, I cannot tell you for sure that you will die if you start taking allopurinol with full dose azathioprine, but I can tell you that many people have died from this combination, and you would be a fool to do it. Similarly, climatologists cannot say precisely what will happen if we continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the current rate, but even the most sanguine tell us that there is a nontrivial chance of a climate catastrophe.

      So we can listen to “Kevin” who is either paid to talk by those who stand to profit (at least temporarily) from the status quo, or who is sincere but ignorant of how science works. Or we can listen to the people (climatologists) who are in the best position to advise us of the danger we are in. Ernest Becker told us there were no guarantees that the human race will survive. Indeed, we may be past the tipping point on climate change already, and all of this discussion is moot.

      One final point. People like “Kevin” appear to be completely convinced that climate change is nothing to worry about. They will not allow even a relatively small chance that disaster awaits. Unlike climatologists, who deal in probabilities and admit their uncertainties as to precise outcomes, deniers have “convictions.” Nietzsche talked about people with convictions: “Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truths exist; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three assertions prove at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thinking…”

      Becker observed that greed can be insatiable in some people because accumulating vast wealth is often an “immortality project.” How ironic that the immortality project of a few billionaires may result in the actual mortality of countless millions of their fellow humans.

      • Thank you for taking the time to respond. I am puzzled that you assumed that I might be paid. Not everyone who disagrees with the liberal climate agenda is working for a billionaire. My main point in writing was to point out the irony of someone enlisting Becker’s support to attack someone else’s mortality project without realizing that their own agenda smacks of an immortality project.

        Also, please don’t lob an ad hominem attack about my not understanding philosophy, and then invoke Nietzche as a defender of the scientific method. Science might be the religion of some, but it certainly wasn’t Nietzche’s.

  2. I am not sure what you meant by your first paragraph, but I would encourage you to actually read what climatologists are saying, and then consider what that means in the context of the history of science and the philosophy of science. I would also encourage you to read my response again, because you did not address most of my points. You didn’t address them because you have no rational answer to them. The tobacco companies used the same techniques: ignore and obfuscate.

    And perhaps you should also read Nietzsche. He understood the scientific process better than many scientists. You obviously are not a scientist, and, unlike Nietzsche, you apparently have little genuine understanding of the scientific process. If you did, you would understand that ignoring the warnings of climatologists is patently absurd. Scientists are not always right, of course, but when the overwhelming majority of scientists in a field say something is dangerous, only fools clutch at the words of the tiny minority of contrarians (most of whom are not qualified climatologists). Basing public policy on the opinions of climate change deniers makes about as much sense as picking which medications to use for a patient based on astrology. It is not impossible that the astrologers will get it right, but the probability is low.

    Finally, climate change is a political issue in the United States, but it is mostly bipartisan in other countries. So your comment about the “liberal climate agenda” makes no sense in most of the world. For that matter it also makes no sense in the US, except for people who have little understanding of science and/or have been brainwashed by Fox News and other sources of right-wing propaganda. It is very sad that human greed and stupidity may mean the end of the world as we know it.

  3. I am interested in healthy dialogue and debate, but would ask that you keep your post civil. I have done nothing but make philosophical points which happen to not mesh with your world view or “scheme of things”. In response, you have called me: 1.) a (paid?) troll, 2.) of having little understanding of science.

    You ask me to respond to your points, but I am having trouble understanding their merit, scientific or otherwise. You mention both the tobacco industry and the fact that you know something about drug interactions, but you do not tie these points to any specific point in support of climate change. You do not cite any specific evidence, and your argument seems to reduce itself down to “I am smart, and you are dumb.” My point has been and remains that the liberal sense that they understand what is best for everyone is in itself a religious immortality project.

    My reason for being on this website is that Ernest Becker’s writing has helped to shape my worldview. In fact, it has helped me to understand why people choose to trumpet certain causes. I think that Ernest Becker could have used this interchange, as an exhibit in one of his books to show how when someone’s immortality project is challenged will quickly revert to verbal attacks.

  4. Well, what can I say. Someone whose first sentence of his first comment accuses me of “self-delusion and hypocrisy” is now calling for civility? I think the post and all of the comments can stand on their own merits for others to judge. Did I make valid points and did you actually address them? I think objective observers can make that call.

    Perhaps Bill Clinton’s “Grandparent Test” would be helpful to you. First you assemble some grandparents. Then suppose there is a risk-related decision to be made about their grandchildren and you ask true experts to weigh in on the topic. If 95% of the true experts say that a particular course of action is dangerous and 5% of them say it is not, how many grandparents would choose the 5% option for their grandchildren. It really is that simple. You are saying that it is rational for a grandparent to choose the option favored by 5% of experts. But that is not rational, and rationality actually is required for such decisions. No amount of evasion and obfuscation on your part will change that simple fact.

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