Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Novel Influence

The latest controversy in the field of climate change is that President Bush apparently invited Michael Crichton to the White House to discuss the author's last novel, "State of Fear," a polemic against the science of climate change. This is causing ripples all over the blogosphere.

Long-time readers may recall that when the book came out last year I provided links to several critiques, including this one by the authors of one of the scientific papers cited in the novel's appendix. I'm not blind to the inferences being drawn in some quarters, but I don't see what can be gained by jumping all over this report. In the current political environment, it would be easy to exaggerate the significance of the meeting in question, especially in terms of any practical difference it might make. I will leave it to others to thrash this out until it has exhausted our feeble attention spans.

Instead, I'd like to make a point about Mr. Crichton and his novel that ought to be less controversial but more meaningful. It goes to the notable failure of those of us who believe we understand the risks of climate change to convince the rest of the country. Michael Crichton may be an important bellwether in this regard.

Contrary to ad hominem attacks on him, he is a smart, educated person. As I pointed out in a comment on another blog, while he may not qualify as a scientist, his training as an MD (Harvard) would have given him a pretty good grounding in the scientific method and the history of science. He can accurately be described as an educated consumer of science, and that's the source of my concern. If a thorough reading of the evidence has failed to convince him of the validity of the scientific consensus, then on what basis can the 99.9% of humanity lacking even this level of scientific training accept or reject climate change, other than as a matter of faith?

It is necessary, but by no means sufficient, that a majority of scientists believes in the threat. If a vast array of scientific papers, conference proceedings and reports from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its periodic confabs can't convince someone with Michael Crichton's background that climate change is a serious problem, how will we win over voters who aren't pre-disposed to the sacrifices that combating it will require--and who may not have taken a math or science class after high school?

As I recall being told many times on my way up the corporate ladder, having the best idea or project in the world isn't worth much, if you can't sell it to management. Despite the efforts of many in the science and NGO community, the explanation of climate change and its consequences is clearly missing some ingredient necessary for convincing the electorate. Finding it may be at least as important as making further refinements in the climate models. Perhaps we should start by asking Mr. Crichton what it would take to convince him.

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