The Hitchhiker's Guide to Bureaucracy

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The sci-fi parody The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is in theatres all over the planet -- and it has some valuable lessons about earthly bureaucracy, including one pivotal subplot that resonates with the critique of anti-chemical regulations made in the ACSH book America's War on "Carcinogens".

Douglas Adams' popular sci-fi/comedy story -- previously told as a radio show, a novel series, record albums, a TV show, a videogame, and comic books but finally hitting the big screen -- begins with everyman Arthur Dent learning that his house is about to be demolished to make room for a highway and, worse, that the Earth is scheduled to be demolished by aliens moments later to make way for a "hyperspace bypass." Luckily, Arthur's best friend turns out to be a space alien who can help him escape the disaster, not merely the ordinary person from Guilford that he appeared to be.

Our heroes find themselves traversing the galaxy, pursued by a fat, glum, dull-witted alien race called the Vogons, who huff unsympathetically that if earthlings didn't want to see their planet destroyed, they should have looked more carefully at the demolition plans, which were on display at the "local planning department" in the nearby solar system of Alpha Centauri. The Vogons are ruthless and mean-spirited and, not surprisingly, very fond of bureaucracy. At one point, their pursuit of our heroes is stymied by their need for an official hyperspace pursuit form from the Vogon central command before they can proceed.

One of Adams' most Swiftian jests, though, is the climactic revelation that humans are not the rulers of Earth after all -- mice are. Mice are in fact hyperintelligent "pan-dimensional beings" conducting an elaborate experiment of which humans are just one component. The planet-building architect Slartibartfast explains the relationship between mice and men in greater detail in Adams' novel. When Arthur expresses disbelief, saying Slartibartfast must have things backwards, since men experiment on mice, Slartibartfast says: "How better to disguise their real natures, and how better to guide your thinking? Suddenly running down a maze the wrong way, eating the wrong bit of cheese, unexpectedly dropping dead of myxomatosis -- if it's finely calculated, the cumulative effect is enormous."

Adams' depiction of the situation on this planet is about right, I'd say, given that our environmental and food regulations are largely controlled by the (scientifically meaningless) results of super-high-dose experiments on rodents -- which could in principle lead to the banning of about half the chemicals in the universe, since about half cause tumors in such experiments. Most scientists know the experiments are of no consequence for human health, but regulations written over fifty years ago say that if it kills a rat, no matter at what dose, it must be banned or strictly limited, often at great expense. The Vogons would admire such hidebound subservience to the rules.

Adams' genius lay in recognizing, better perhaps than many far more serious sci-fi writers, that if outer space contained beings like ourselves, they would not just possess our more dramatic characteristics -- the capacity for heroism, villainy, exploration, war, or invention -- but all our mundane ones, such as paranoia, insecurity, narrow-mindedness, lack of imagination, greed, pettiness, and lines as long as the ones at the post office and Department of Motor Vehicles. In the end, it's not really science or sci-fi he's mocking -- it's us.

In other science-humor news: the past several days (during which I was lucky enough to see an advance screening of the reassuringly good final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith) saw the unveiling of my article on about how sci-fi fans are sometimes like the crank scientists ACSH criticizes, my somewhat beauty-pageant-winner-like comments on Spiked-Online about the one scientific insight I'd like to teach the world (part of a survey they've done on that topic), and an entry on the funny (and often raunchy) site that includes something I overheard summing up in one quick lesson how not to think about science and economics. In my way, I am always teaching. Meanwhile, by the way, tomorrow, May 7, 2005, at precisely 10pm, will be the target date declared for any future time travelers who might be interested in visiting our era and partying with the MIT students who are organizing the event (they are encouraging people to create invitations to the event on "non-perishable media" that might be retrieved in the distant future by those interested in traveling back in time to attend). If this experiment does not create a paradox that destroys the space-time continuum, FactsAndFears will continue to address serious science and health topics next week...