Michael Crichton has written a new novel, State of Fear, that adds heat to the public debate about global warming. He attacks the concept of global warming caused by man's activities. Now that's politically incorrect squared.
Many of Crichton's novels, however, have followed the theme of good intentions in science going haywire, and in this book, his real objective is to warn against politicizing science. It is a warning that really should be heeded, too, though I fear it's way too late.
As with all his novels, he combines fiction with fact and makes a point of saying that the graphs and footnotes are factual. I listened to him speak about the subject, and he said something else that is also true. He said you can't expect to find the truth in the mass media because they follow Walt Disney's instructions to his cartoonists: simplify and exaggerate.
As a journalist, I can tell you that that is quite true. I can also tell you why it happens, with some happy exceptions. American journalists are trained to write stories, not reports. A story must have drama. A scientific study that is inconclusive is generally deemed not a story. A scientific study that postulates a possibility wrapped in caveats is apt to be stripped of its caveats and reported as a certainty. That's much more dramatic.
I once got irritated by a fellow reporter who was writing stories about a "cancer-causing pesticide," as she inevitably described it. I called the Environmental Protection Agency and got the real skinny on the pesticide. Yes, if you drank water with a certain amount of this pesticide in it every day of your life for 72 consecutive years, the EPA's computer model said it was likely to increase your chance of developing cancer by a small fraction of 1 percent. Of course, the natural background rate of cancer is about 20 percent. And the EPA fellow said the computer model might not be true at all, because all the test data were based on mice, not people.
There does seem to be a consensus that the Earth has warmed a small fraction in the past few decades. The unanswered question is, Is this part of a natural process, or is it caused by man's activity? Many environmentalists and most governments in the world have said the answer is that man is pumping too much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. That's what the Kyoto treaty is all about.
Unfortunately, the evidence for this is thin. In the past, the Earth has cooled and warmed entirely on its own, long before there were enough humans to make a spit's worth of difference. It is ridiculous to suppose that something as complex and as incompletely understood as the atmosphere could be translated into an accurate computer model. It also ridiculous to predict what the Earth's temperature will be even 10 years in the future, much less 50 or 100 years.
So, as to whether it's greenhouse gases or a natural process, I don't know, and neither, Crichton says, does he. But the point of his book is that many environmental organizations, individuals and scientists develop a vested political and financial interest in the assertion that the problem is greenhouse gases. Like ideologues, they prefer argument to research and facts.
History is full of examples where there was a wide consensus among the best minds of the age that turned out to be flat wrong. To politicize science, Crichton warns, is very dangerous. One example is eugenics, a widely accepted racial theory at the turn of the 20th century, which led directly to mass murder in the Third Reich. Humans, I think, are susceptible to myths and fiction because they feel a need for certainty, yet much of reality remains a mystery, and much of science is inconclusive.
At any rate, I highly recommend the book. It is a cracking-good suspense story and, unlike most novels, will actually teach you something valuable to know.
March 1, 2005
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on LewRockwell.com. Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.
© 2005 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.