December 15, 2004
Bad Science, Bad Scholarship, Bad Journalism, Popular Fiction
from - smijer
My first exposure to Michael Chrichton was The Andromeda Strain. It came to me with a reputation as a science fiction "classic". It turned out to be just dumb and predictable. Since then, Chrichton has pumped out barely-believable fiction with a healthy dose of dubious science. And now, he has jumped on the bandwagon of global warming skepticisim. Real Climate replies, and I give a hat tip to PZ at Pharyngula for catching it.
On the one hand, this is just part of a trend of bad science and bad scholarship among popular fiction works lately. But on the other, it is deeply disturbing. It disturbs me in much the same way that anyone interested in accurate New Testament scholarship is disturbed by The Da Vinci Code, whether they be Christian evangelists or (like me) non-believers who can't stand to see the already murky waters of New Testament scholarship further muddied by popularized misconceptions.
But, this isn't just another case of ignorance for dollars. This is also part of a political campaign to delegitimize the findings of science where it concerns climate change to the general public. It's part of a political effort that comes mostly from a sub-set of "pro-industry" conservatives. I noticed one manifestation of this campaign in a post nearly a year ago.
Complicating matters farther are a couple of facts and a little bit of history. The historical reason that the waters are too easily muddied today is that the popular press sensationalized the case for anthropogenic climate change for quite a few years in the '80s and early '90s. Bad science reporting then undermined the case for climate change in the public imagination, because much of what was presented then as "fact" was still relatively untested. I remember being suprised to learn that the "hole in the ozone layer" had existed for as long as we had been capable of noticing it, and that there was a diversity of scientific opinion about its origin. It doesn't help matters that Hollywood is producing movies like The Day After Tomorrow, which further sensationalize and inaccurately portray the science behind global warming. The eighties' popular press and the 21st century's Hollywood are great straw men for dissenters to publicly knock down.
Another complicating fact is that there are still some holdouts who are actual scientists, unlike the phoney controversy over evolution and creationism. The last real scientists who held out skepticism over an ancient earth or over the general accuracy of Darwin's theory faded away in the first half of the century. It's true that the only remaining skeptics of human induced climate change tend to be old-timers who just don't trust the results these young whipper-snappers are coming up with, and those scientists with a "pro-industry" political agenda and/or a paycheck coming from polluting industries. Nevertheless, these are active scientists doing research in the relevant fields, and that makes them a step higher on the credibility ladder than the evolution deniers. The public at large, however, cannot understand why real scientists working in the field are still skeptical if there is not a substantial amount of doubt about the subject. They cannot read and interpret the evidence for themselves (and what they do get a chance to shift through has often been stacked by someone with an agenda), and it isn't immediately clear to them, first, that there has emerged a strong consensus around the fact of climate change from human activity, or second, how that consensus best reflects the evidence.
The other complicating factor is that there still remains debate over the numbers. There are still questions about how much humans are contributing to climate change and how severe the consequences of that change might turn out to be. This scientific debate can be played out by the dissenters as calling into question the basic fact of climate change - when actually it shouldn't.
There are three solutions to these problems, but they are tough. They are 1) education, 2) education, and the all important 3) ...education.
Resources like RealClimate.org will help with number one. Good pro-science school boards will help with number 2. But only we as individuals, one by one, can proactively take care of number 3 by taking the time to educate ourselves. So, let's get to it. Not just about global warming - but about the age of the earth, Constantine, first century Jewish marriage customs and the council of Nicea, and anything we find in our e-mail boxes that smells like a good candidate for Snopes!
Update: Real Climate has added a second post on the topic of Chrichton's activism.::
Posted by smijer at December 15, 2004 06:29 PM