Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear”
Remember when bestselling author Michael Crichton jumped into the global warming debate with both feet, releasing a book called State of Fear that cast environmentalists as ruthless loonies and climate change as a case of mass hysteria, and everybody was buzzing about it, and every publication on the planet published reviews of the book, and Crichton did the rounds on talk shows playing the martyr, and American pop culture was all a-twitter?
Back in December?
Yeah, well, we’re ready to weigh in now. (We just wanted to get the last word!)
My review of the book is up, and so is a scientific debunking of the book from Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. (It’s a much-revised version of a piece he published over on the might-as-well-put-“indispensable”-in-the-name Indispensable RealClimate.org.)
More reflections below the jump.I read dozens of reviews in the course of writing mine, and one thing that struck me is how uniformly ignorant people — even very intelligent, educated people — are of climate science. With the exception of Chris Mooney, who writes on science for a living, almost every reviewer, whether positive or negative about the book overall, said something along the lines of Steve Wasserman: “inside this bloated 600-page book is a fierce and compelling Op-Ed piece desperate to get out.”
I agree about the bloated book. But the op-ed inside it is not “compelling.” As anyone familiar with the history of this issue will know, it’s a fairly standard recital of contrarian claims (nothing you couldn’t get in 15 minutes of surfing over at junkscience.com) that have been addressed and rebutted by scientists in the field over and over again. It’s admirable, I suppose, that Crichton was willing to wade into the material, but the fact that he can cite papers in footnotes doesn’t mean that he’s marshaled a compelling case.
The point I make at great length and questionable coherence here is this: A reviewer does not have to become a climate expert to assess the op-ed inside Crichton’s book. They simply have to assess the state of play of the debate.
I don’t know for sure whether we’ve landed on the moon. I’ve never been there or seen it directly. I believe it because scientists and other parties I’m inclined to trust say we have, while a network of obsessed, isolated cranks say we haven’t. I don’t need to independently assess the evidence. I need to assess who to believe. This is by no means an easy or straightforward undertaking in many cases, but that’s the undertaking. Footnotes are cheap; credibility is not.
Crichton surveyed the scene and decided to go with the isolated cranks over the scientific establishment. In the absence of some pretty decisive original evidence of his own, the only reason to do so is a political ax to grind. Evidence of that ax is everywhere throughout the book.
As they say over at the Indispensable RealClimate, consensus shouldn’t be the basis of science, but it should be the basis of politics, and what Crichton doing is nothing more or less than politics.
People shouldn’t be so dazzled by footnotes.