March 02, 2005

A Poor "Dialogue"

A standard stop along the road of scientific history includes a discussion of Galileo's famous book, "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems". In this book, Galileo, taking the character of the innocent scientific bystander, Salviati, listens to a debate between a believer in the Earth-centered model of the Universe (voiced by an embarrassing fool named Simplicio) and the Copernican sun-centered model that Galileo supported (voiced by an intelligent, educated man named Sagredo).

The fact that Galileo was ultimately closer to the truth doesn't change the nature of the book, which was pure propaganda. It set out to make fools of those who opposed Galileo (mainly the Pope at the time, Urban VIII) and convince the masses of Galileo's superior logic, wit and intelligence. It wasn't the first time this sort of technique was used to bring a scientific debate to the public's attention and, sadly, it wasn't the last.

Michael Crichton has carried on Galileo's grand tradition with "State of Fear", a thriller about eco-terrorism. It isn't nearly as focused or entertaining as his earlier books (e.g. "Jurassic Park" or "Disclosure") which also contain Crichton's scientific views voiced through mostly sympathetic characters while opposing views are mostly voiced through villains or idiots or both. The difference here is that the politics is laid on super-thick in a very clumsy way. It's almost like Crichton is trying his best to get the right-wing we-buy-books-by-the-metric-ton organizations behind his book. Instead of a good plot with some of Crichton's observations on science or society thrown in, this book feels like a long screed of Crichton's opinionated bullshit with a little plot thrown in to string it all together.

I'm convinced that he's got his usual contrarian axe to grind, but this time, he spent way too long on it and also stepped into territory that I happen to know a little bit about. Kind of like how Clancy likes to put stereotypical liberal views into the mouths of traitors and jerks in his later books, Crichton does it in a very heavy-handed, almost embarrassing way. And I know enough about the subject to see right through it, so much so that it is too distracting to really enjoy the book.

Crichton employs all the usual dust-raising arguments favored by fossil fuel industry shills. He confuses climate forecasting with weather forecasting. He (purposefully) cherry-picks local data sets instead of talking about global averages. He talks about model uncertainties individually without looking at the collective set. He talks about systematic biases in the data without any indication that these have been properly accounted for in the models. He asserts that scientists have to massage their data to support global warming or risk losing funding, somehow getting mainstream science confused with the tobacco industry. Sorry, there is just *not* an equivalence there.

He brushes off the fact that what few scientists try to publish fossil-fuel-industry supported views rarely get past serious peer review, and they are always funded by industry. He basically accuses every other scientist of being on the payroll of environmentalists (yeah, like they're just rolling in money, enough to fund legions of climate scientists) or at the very least hopelessly biased toward the cause of environmentalism. He talks about the drop in global average temperature during the middle of the 20th century (one of the few actual graphs in the book with global, rather than local, data) without noting the amazing correlation between temp and CO2 levels worldwide over the past 400k years. I guess if there's a noticeable anti-correlation for 20-30 years, that must wipe out the other 400k years of correlation.

The most obvious part is his use of footnotes. In the foreward to the book, Crichton very seriously notes that, oh yes, the footnotes are real references. And sure enough, they are. But Crichton only tends to footnote the papers that cast doubt on the idea of global warming (typically by presenting contradictory data on a local scale or by assuming way too much systematic error in measurements) without noting the legions of papers that say otherwise. And most of the time, he just skips footnotes altogether while the same character makes assertion after assertion. Look, either footnote and document *everything* or don't bother. Mixing fact in with fiction is useless. It's just so Crichton can step back when seriously challenged on some facts and say, in a nice Rush Limbaugh voice, "Hey, I'm only an entertainer!"

To add credibility to his case, Crichton has his stupid "pro-global-warming" characters throw out straw man after straw man. For example, stupid guy says (or, better, the stereotypical, slimy, egotistical, shallow Hollywood celebrity), "Everyone knows global warming is really happening and is caused by CO2 levels!" Really? Show me a scientific paper that uses the language of certainty like that. No, in reality, scientists notice a good correlation between temp and CO2, and we know the CO2 is going up to levels unprecedented in recent geological history, and we don't honestly know what will happen to temps and sea levels as a result. We can only quote (big) error bars. We also know global average temperatures are rising, and the levels are apparently unprecedented in recent geological history, but the cause isn't clear. The correlation between CO2 and temperature is worrisome enough, though, that it's a good idea to think about it, study it further, etc.

What a scientist like me *will* tell you is that it is pretty stupid to put all of that carbon in the air without at least making a big, big effort to look for alternative sources of energy. What a scientists like me *will* tell you is that government is not serious enough about finding alternatives, not serious enough about promoting fuel efficiency, not serious enough with research dollars toward real solutions, not serious about subsidizing what few alternatives there are, etc. No, according to Crichton, climate scientists who think global warming *may* be a problem don't exist. Scientists either think it is the end of the world by the next century (and cannot *possibly* be convinced otherwise because they are just so darned closed-minded -- those crazy scientists!) or they are smart and agree with Crichton's hero guy, who apparently specializes in arrogantly discrediting assertions that no serious scientist would support anyway.

Sadly, this is the perfect tactic to sow doubt in the mind of the scientifically illiterate Moron American. Your typical reader will likely come away from this thinking, "Wow, Crichton sure showed those librul science people a thing or two about global warming! Thank God I listen to Rush so those gummint scientists didn't fool me into thinking there's a problem with fossil fuel burning." Yes, that's an unfair and clumsy stereotype, but I just finished a book filled with that kind of shit, so cut me some slack.

I'll be fair and note that one point Crichton raised to criticize environmentalists is also a pet peeve of mine, and that is the frequent use of private jets by these people, which are a much bigger CO2 problem than all the Hummers in the world combined. In the grand scheme of things, neither is all that significant. It just gets under my skin. And yeah, everyone is wasteful in America, even people who think they're "green". And I'll admit that Crichton sounds a lot more reasonable in his afterword. The book doesn't come across that way at all.

All in all, this is an effort on par with Dan Brown's early books. It seems that Brown may be getting better (since "Da Vinci Code" was pretty good) while Crichton is coasting and getting all cranky and politicized, like Clancy. Too bad. I'm glad I got this from the library instead of buying it.

Posted by Observer at March 2, 2005 07:03 AM
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Oh, I left out one of my favorite stupid arguments. One of the characters talks about how an increase in CO2 from 320 to 380 parts per million in the atmosphere is really nothing, it's the equivalent of like half an inch on a hundred yard football field or something.

In and of itself, it is one of many flagrant misuses of statistics and math in the book. Without explaining how important trace amounts of CO2 (or any other gas) can be, there is no context for the reader to decide.

For example, I could use the same argument and introduce only 60 parts per million worth of the Ebola virus into Crichton's bloodstream. I mean, hey, it's only a half-inch on a football field, so why should he be worried? Every time I think about this book, I remember another horrific botched explanation of some scientific principle or theory. I guess I'll stop now. I think I've got it all out of my system.

Posted by: Observer on March 2, 2005 09:57 AM

Gah. I hadn't heard a capsule summary of this before, so I hadn't known how far gone Crichton has become. This sounds like it's on the same level as those imbecilic anti-evolution cartoon booklets, just longer so that the big-name author has enough words in it to draw a decent paycheck. Too bad. Well, I haven't bought any of his books before, and this seals it so I won't.

Posted by: Feff on March 2, 2005 11:48 AM