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Bad Science, Bad Fiction

Doubt and About

Chris Mooney

January 18, 2005


Michael Crichton’s latest book, State of Fear, is a novel in name only. More accurately described, it’s a work of thinly disguised political commentary, in which a wildly implausible plot—eco-terrorists supplant Al Qaeda as the leading global menace, unveiling dastardly weather modification schemes to convince the public of a nonexistent global warming threat—serves as an excuse for a string of Socratic-style dialogues about climate science. Since Crichton’s characters repeatedly find themselves jetting across the globe to stop the latest eco-terrorist menace (blowing off parts of Antarctica, unleashing a tsunami, and so on), they have plenty of time in transit to question the reality of human caused global warming. The plot contrivance of a pending climate change lawsuit—abandoned once its proponents realize they don’t have a case—provides yet another didactic opportunity for the author. When the legal team cross-examines one of our heroes about climate science, Crichton seizes the chance to insert temperature trend diagrams and copious footnotes into the text.

All of these “educational” dialogues take the same format: A smart-guy character, holding forth in technical banter bearing little resemblance to spoken English, runs rings around a character who holds misguided beliefs that he or she cannot defend with reference to the scientific literature. These erroneous beliefs all hinge on the notion that the earth is warming significantly, that this has resulted at least in part from human activities, and that the consequences have begun to make themselves felt and could grow quite severe over time—a robust mainstream scientific view, although apparently not one shared by Crichton. Hilariously, at the end of his book Crichton states: “A novel such as State of Fear, in which so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues.” As if it wasn’t obvious.

Crichton’s central smart guy is Richard John Kenner, a scientist who heads the fictional MIT Center for Risk Analysis while doubling as a secret agent who likes to bring lawyers and hot babes along on his adventures. Kenner seems a composite of Richard Lindzen, the famed MIT prof and global warming “skeptic,” John Graham, who headed the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis before joining the Bush administration (see here for a previous column about what Graham has been up to), and Vin Diesel. In essence, Kenner’s character serves as a vessel into which Crichton can pour his agenda-driven reading of the scientific evidence. Here’s an example of how Kenner talks:

There are one hundred sixty thousand glaciers in the world, Ted. About sixty-seven thousand have been inventoried but only a few have been studied with care. There is mass balance data extending five years or more for only seventy-nine glaciers in the entire world. So, how can you say they're all melting?

Try reading that aloud, and then ask yourself whether real people, even real scientists, speak this way. Though perhaps intended to make Kenner seem smart, such language only makes him seem fake.

Nevertheless, Kenner excels at getting equally fictitious lawyers and Hollywood celebrities to see the error of their ways. But for some reason, Crichton never has his mouthpiece argue against another scientist who reads the evidence on climate change differently and can cite literature to back his or her view as well. In our world—the real world—you can find a small army of these. I have interviewed many of them, heard others lecture, and met still more at conferences. In Crichton’s universe, however, they seem not to exist.

Crichton’s scientific footnotes—which he promises “are real"—similarly misrepresent reality. In the text of State of Fear as well as in its 20 pages of citations, Crichton glosses over a high profile 2001 National Academy of Sciences report entitled Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Key Questions, which opens with the following passage:

Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century. Secondary effects are suggested by computer model simulations and basic physical reasoning. These include increases in rainfall rates and increased susceptibility of semi-arid regions to drought. The impacts of these changes will be critically dependent on the magnitude of the warming and the rate with which it occurs.

The mention of “human-induced warming and associated sea level rises” is particularly interesting, because Crichton seeks to debunk concerns about rising sea levels. Crichton’s footnotes also exclude statements by the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union, which broadly agree with NAS. No wonder real life climate experts, of the sort that Crichton excommunicates from his “novel,” have scathingly critiqued his depiction of their field and the level of understanding it has achieved.

As these examples suggest, Crichton’s skewed reading of the scientific literature leads him into an utter abandonment of literary verisimilitude. For this author, at least, bad science fuels bad fiction. Nowhere does that shortcoming become more apparent than in Crichton’s inability to capture human character. His environmentalists are total creeps, and not just that. They're nefarious schemers, who won’t even stop at mass murder to achieve their greater goals. As one eco-terrorist puts it, shortly before Kenner silences him with a bullet: “Casualties are inevitable in accomplishing social change. History tells us that.”

Sorry, but I've hung out with plenty of environmental activists (although no eco-terrorists), and they're just not as Crichton describes them. They have many flaws—naïve idealism, political impotence perhaps—but they're not cold-blooded killers. They would never dream of causing the types of disasters they're pledged to work against. In Crichton’s fictional universe, however, global warming concerns are all made up. Therefore, environmentalists must transform into outright evildoers—how else to account for their real life behavior? Crichton should have realized, from the unreality of his characters, that he'd been tugged in the wrong direction.

The author’s depictions of journalists have similar flaws. In State of Fear, reporters exist solely as environmentalist lapdogs. Crichton makes this plain in a scene in which his characters find themselves watching a newscast:

They cut to a younger man, apparently the weatherman. “Thanks, Terry. Hi, everybody. If you’re a longtime resident of the Grand Canyon State, you've probably noticed that our weather is changing, and scientists have confirmed that what’s behind it is our old culprit, global warming. Today’s flash flood is just one example of the trouble ahead—more extreme weather conditions, like floods and tornadoes and droughts—all as a result of global warming.”
Sanjong nudged Evans, and handed him a sheet of paper. It was a printout of a press release from the NERF [an environmental group] website. Sanjong pointed to the text: “scientists agree there will be trouble ahead: more extreme weather events, like floods and tornadoes and droughts, all as a result of global warming.”
Evans said, “This guy’s just reading a press release?”
“That’s how they do it, these days,” Kenner said. “They don’t even bother to change a phrase here and there. They just read the copy outright. And of course, what he’s saying is not true.”

In fact, no self-respecting journalist would take an environmentalist press release and copy it verbatim. Members of the mainstream national media do view environmental groups as self-interested, and check their claims with independent scientists. What Crichton can’t admit, or can’t stand, is that in reality these scientists often agree with the environmental groups.

In State of Fear, however, Crichton is God, and his views become the book’s laws of nature. That’s never more apparent than in Crichton’s numerous “conversion” scenes, in which characters who had previously believed in the dogma of global warming suddenly see the light. At one point in the novel, two such figures confide in one another following a legal cross examination:

“I mean, when I gave those answers, I wasn’t saying what I really think. I'm, uh “I’m asking some—I'm changing my mind about a lot of this stuff.”
“Yes,” he said, speaking softly. “Those graphs of temperature, for instance. They raise obvious questions about the validity of global warming.”
She nodded slowly. Looking at him closely.
He said, “You, too?”
She continued to nod.

Let’s face it: Such writing is pure porn for global warming deniers, in much the same way that fictional accounts of UFO abduction skeptics converting into true believers titillate UFO fans.

In the end, State of Fear bears little resemblance to Crichton’s most successful sci-fi thrillers, like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain. Instead, it’s far more reminiscent of Disclosure, Crichton’s perverse attempt to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace by focusing on a case in which a woman harasses a man, rather than vice-versa. Similarly, in State of Fear the specter of a vast environmentalist conspiracy—a problem even less significant than sexual harassment of men by their female superiors—gets trumpeted while real concerns (climate change, for instance) get scoffed at. By the book’s end, one can only ask: What planet is Michael Crichton living on? Because this one is clearly getting warmer.

Chris Mooney

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Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.