08 September 2013

Prophet of fear

State of Fear by Michael Crichton (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004)

A few months ago I bought a copy of The Global Warming Reader, edited by Bill McKibben. I was surprised to see Michael Crichton is included in the anthology—via a very short excerpt from his novel State of Fear—as one of the dissenting voices in the global warming theory. I've been reading Crichton intermittently in my college days. Seven novels in all, my Goodreads shelf tells me. I enjoyed the guy's escapist fiction. Crichton's high profile and influence must have been the reason for his piece to be included to "balance out" the important essays on a hot science topic. I resolved to investigate further and read the entire novel.

In State of Fear, Crichton tells about how a lawyer and a pair of scientists (the good guys) tried to thwart a series of catastrophic disasters engineered by eco-terrorists. The eco-terrorists are hardline climate change believers hiding behind supposedly committed environmental organizations and corporations. They are intent on demonstrating the incredible impacts of "abrupt climate change" and on sowing fear among the world citizens.

There are indications that State of Fear is Crichton's most personal and most political book, the book where he poured all his "expertise" as a mainstream writer to inform readers of the invalidity of anthropogenic climate change and the systematic politicization of climate science to promote the global warming theory. Crichton emphasizes that global warming is only a "theory" and there's a lot of room for doubts.

This is supposed to be a very technical book and Crichton is good at summarizing his main points and of backing up his "reading" of scientific data and researches published in peer-reviewed journals. Crichton took the trouble of adding references to these publications and journals in footnotes and in a comprehensive bibliography with annotations. This attention to science and the fact that the book clocks in at more than 700 pages demonstrate the writer's intellectual investment to the topic. It is unfortunate, however, that the book often relies on speculative science to carry the plot along.

As Kenner explained it, the rockets were intended to do something called "charge amplification" of the storm. It was an idea from the last ten years, when people first began to study lightning in the field, in actual storms. The old idea was that each lightning strike decreased the storm's intensity, because it reduced the difference in electrical charge between the clouds and the ground. But some researchers had concluded that lightning strikes had the opposite effect—they increased the power of storms dramatically. The mechanism for this was not known, but was presumed to be related to the sudden heat of the lightning bolt, or the shock-wave it created, adding turbulence to the already turbulent storm center. In any case, there was now a theory that if you could make more lightning, the storm would get worse. [emphases added]

Of course a fiction—whether or not it is hard science fiction—is entitled to use existing scientific theories in a fictional manner. But for a novel supposedly intent on debunking the "theory of global warming", the enterprise becomes suspect if the author himself relies on new theories to further his ends. In the scene described above, the scientist Kenner is bent on preventing a "hypothetical" intensified storm that will be brought about by multiple lightnings released into the sky by eco-terrorists. The prevention of this "theoretical event" from happening will presumably stop the evil environmental organizations from claiming that the super storm is caused by climate change, which Crichton repeatedly reminds us is just a theoretical construct. Here's another geoengineering measure that the scientists in the book are also concerned about (emphasis added):

Sanjong said, "It's pretty clear they're going to disseminate AOB, ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, in large quantities. And perhaps more hydrophilic nanoparticles as well."

"To do what?"

"Control the path of a storm," Kenner said. "There's some evidence that disseminated AOB at altitude can shift a hurricane or cyclone track. Hydrophilic nanoparticles potentiate the effect. At least in theory. I don't know if it's been tried on a large system."

"They're going to control a hurricane?"

"They're going to try."

By relying on theories to further a story that will supposedly question a theory, the writer is contradicting the spirit of disproof. If the science of climate is so little understood, why fan the flames of uncertainty?

Anyone with a strong opinion about climate change and global warming will be exercised by this book's rhetoric and argumentation. It is fairly obvious that the book is not balanced. In fact, it is unapologetic in its stance against the consensus of the world's scientists about the strong possibility of climate change. The 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is alarming in its conclusion that climate change is unequivocally caused by man's emissions. A leaked draft IPCC report says that man's contribution to climate change is "virtually certain".

Crichton's position is the opposite. He portrays the science of global warming as built upon erroneous or misguided interpretation of temperature data. To prove his point he takes the trouble of reproducing in the novel many graphs showing local surface temperature variations which show that in some places temperatures hardly register any change at all while in others it is in fact cooling. That is hardly a big discovery since we're talking here of "local" variations and not "global" temperature change.

Crichton's message is that the world is currently in the grip of fear brought about by news of impending global catastrophes. This fear is manufactured by the irresponsible system of politics, law, and the media. Hardcore environmental organizations and their PR machines foment fear presumably to promote their alarmist worldview and to secure more research funding. Crichton sees conspiracy among scientists rather than consensus. He believes that the conclusions of many scientists and their press releases are based on shaky, dubious, fuzzy science. And one sees no irony when this pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophical stance is announced by a foaming-in-the-mouth mad-scientist type in the book. Crichton probably wants to lighten the mood and/or soften the gloom-and-doom scenario he painted, but really, the lynchpin of his argument is almost the same as blatant greenwashing. In a mad scientist, he has found a perfect representation of a yammering fearmonger he seeks to denounce.

Based on his annotations of bibliography, though, it is evident that Crichton is not concerned about presenting an airtight case against the scientific basis of climate change but on shaking things up. He not only sermonizes against what he thinks are clueless advocacy groups trying to address global warming issues, he demonizes that brand of environmentalism. He is provocative partly because his arguments often fly in the face of sound science and sound logic. The politicization of climate change, according to him, is comparable to the supposedly strong political support in the US and Germany on eugenics research (which Crichton points out is directly related to "overt racism") in the 1920s and 30s.

I am not arguing that global warming is the same as eugenics. But the similarities are not superficial. And I do claim that open and frank discussion of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed. Leading scientific journals have taken strong editorial positions on the side of global warming, which, I argue, they have no business doing. Under the circumstances, any scientist who has doubts understands clearly that they will be wise to mute their expression.

There is something tasteless about that argument. It is quite understandable to be skeptical about climate change. For all we know, we might wake up tomorrow being threatened by a new ice age. But still the majority of scientists believe at the moment that there is a large chance of a continuing warming underway. The complex climate system cannot give definitive predictions but only probabilities based on global climate models. For an appreciation of these probabilities the global citizen may need to harbor a "healthy dose" of skepticism. Too much skepticism and its opposite—too much climate change fundamentalism—can equally give rise to a state of unsolicited fear. We may yet adapt to any global warming eventuality if we err on the side of precaution.

State of Fear has flashes of entertaining action sequences but one has to critically parse the message as the scientific basis is essentially unfounded. The rhetoric is not to be taken seriously; it often lapses into dumbness. If one does not relish reading about poorly developed, paper-thin characters in a contrived, didactic plot for more than 500 pages, one needs only to read the transcript of Crichton's three speeches on climate change (found here—pdf) to understand the author's "sui generis" position. It's disheartening.

For a more balanced, more nuanced, and more scientifically grounded views on climate change and global warming phenomena, nonfiction titles offer credible narratives. I recommend The Discovery of Global Warming (2003. rev. 2008) by Spencer R. Weart and Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction (2004, rev. 2008) by Mark Maslin.


  1. You have far more fortitude than I for having made it through a Michael Crichton novel, Rise. Nice dissection of this one. Some of Crichton's arguments that you cite above are so specious - I mean, would he object to scientific journals taking a strong editorial position on the side of vaccinating children, despite airhead celebrities merely opining that it causes autism? The eugenics argument is particularly tasteless.

    The New York Times, probably six years ago, ran a story about why so many Americans react so strongly against scientific evidence for climate change, and one factor it omitted is the deliberate misinformation spread by corporate contributors to greenhouse gases (or their proxies). I've never understood this argument that environmental organizations have some nefarious agenda; it seems quite the other way around, that climate change contributors are deliberately impeding results from solid science - to the detriment of all of us. As a wise informant once said: "Follow the money."

  2. Scott, that Jenny-McCarthy-against-vaccination is a sorry affair. Just proves how crackpot science and misinformation can easily take hold of imagination. Crichton himself misused and misrepresented scientific data to support his position. A lot of reviews out there already pointed to his distortions of research results. He did have a point. He's against politicizing science, who can argue with that? But his means of promoting his agenda is out of touch with reality. Your point about fossil fuel industries and their PR machine orchestrating the climate science backlash is, unfortunately, one of the things Crichton didn't take up in the book.

  3. I certainly wouldn't look for a Crichton novel for information about global warming. But a friend of mine who knows more about science than I do, has suggested "The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World," by Bjørn Lomborg.

    Lomborg, a scientist, was also a believer in global warming until he started making his own experiments and reached the conclusion that it's impossible for humans to have such an impact on nature. I haven't read it yet, even though I'm always open to reconsider my opinions, but I'm assuming it'd be more valuable for a serious debate about this issue than Crichton.

  4. That's true, Crichton is a largely unreliable commentator on global warming. Unfortunately he's not only read for entertainment; some do take him seriously. I'll also be skeptical about Lomborg's skepticism, although it appears he packaged his arguments better.

  5. A good companion book to Lomborg's would be The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming by Howard Friel. And the website http://www.lomborg-errors.dk/