Tuesday, January 11, 2005

State of Fear?
A friend was kind enough to bring this review of Michael Crichton's latest novel to my attention. "State of Fear" deals with climate change and, in particular, with the global management of the issue by governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Although the reviewer, a scientist, has some interesting comments about the assumptions upon which Mr. Crichton's story rests, there's a more important point to make than whether this book has its facts straight.

First, I must admit that I haven't yet read "State of Fear." While I have enjoyed many of Mr. Crichton's previous works, he's not on my "buy on sight" list. He enjoys a wide and loyal readership and a reputation for solidly researched ideas. (Interestingly enough, many in the science fiction community--to which a layman might be forgiven for thinking he belongs--regard him as fundamentally anti-science.) As a result, a Michael Crichton book critical of climate change science carries a bit more weight than the average thriller.

What concerns me is that if an author with Mr. Crichton's scientific background (a Harvard M.D.) and all the time and money in the world for researching his novel can get key facts about climate change wrong, as Dr. Schmidt asserts, then what chance do the rest of us stand of grasping the complexities of this issue? This is not an elitist argument that only a few scientists can really understand climate change, but rather that most of the public lacks the context for how science like this really works, because our education system does such a poor job of teaching the sciences, particularly the history of science.

That's a big problem, because if the central hypothesis of climate change is correct, then man-made influences are contributing to drive the climate away from the range that has allowed humanity to reach its present extent and state of development. More importantly, all this is happening at a rate that is too gradual to be readily observable by the average person. Taking action to stave off the worst potential consequences requires not just consensus but faith that the science here is working as it should and in a way we can all trust.

It might make for a good thriller premise to imagine that scientists and NGOs have conspired to concoct "climate change" for their own purposes, but this is at odds with any objective assessment of the current state of climate theory. Ultimately, Mr. Crichton's book may prove helpful if it stimulates the public's interest in this issue and prompts some tough questions, but not if it undermines our faith in the scientific method itself.

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