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)

Resources like 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

You say that it "isn't immediately clear" to the public that a consensus has emerged on global warming. But polling suggests otherwise. (See A Myth about Public Opinion and Global Warming.) For at least seven years, about 75 percent of Americans have accepted the proposition that the Earth is warming, and that we humans are at least partly responsible.

This suggests that journalists have done a somewhat better job in covering global warming than is often claimed. Moreover, it suggests that scientists just don't get it. The fact that the public has not gotten behind strong measures to combat climate change may not have much to do with a lack of education, or "bad journalism." As Dan Sarewitz, director of the Consortium of Science, Policy & Outcomes puts it, "Crichton and his scientist-critics both labor under the same fallacy: that science dictates action in the world. It doesn't." (See: State of Fear Part II.

-- Tom Yulsman, Center for Environmental Journalism, University of Colorado

univar.jpg Posted by Tom Yulsman on December 15, 2004 07:59 PM
Link to comment

Some good points... My point, and I made it badly, I know, was that there is ignorance on the how and why of climate change and climatologist opinion that can be exploited by people like Chrichton and Lindzen. Even now that the popular media is doing a somewhat better job explaining things, the nuts and bolts of it remain somewhat mysterious - and that's a weakness through which pro-industry propagandists can drive a big ole' truck.

I also updated the post to add a link to the second installment at RealClimate.. Thanks!

univar.jpg Posted by smijer on December 15, 2004 08:05 PM
Link to comment

I am the "public"; working as an engineer in the semiconductor field. I think Michael Chrichton is saying that the actual size of the "human" effect is unknown, and may be being sensationalized for public policy purposes. I do not think he is saying there is absolutely no effect (the increase in CO2 is a fact, and the heat properties of CO2 in the air is a fact). If the climate science is sound, then scientists should not be defensive about his book; as the truth will be known in the end. This whole debate is not about science, because of course he is entitled to his opinion and he is not a climate scientist, but it is about politics and political correctness (or scientific correctness?). The public policy position of being cautious due to the science not bring mature enough to definitively predict what will happen is a good one, and the debate he is causing with his book is good because it causes lots and lost of people to examine the issues, irregardless that he is not a climate scientist.
If I was the General Manager/VP of Climate Scientists, Inc, I would have these questions:
"Can science prove the earth will heat up, due to human actions, enough to have a very negative effect on life on this planet? If so, how soon and what are the effects? If so, how can we stop it without destroying our economy? If so, will Kyoto, if the US signed up, have any significant effect? If so, is it already too late? If not, why take any special action? Please provide strong evidence for all answers!"
Chrichton has a point about the scare tactics about the Ozone layer being destroyed, and then "never mind"; what is the actual science? Ditto for Future Shock on population, and scientists refusing to accept in the mid-1800s that germs cause disease and the need for antiseptic methods in surgery? (i.e.: a lot of scientists (the consensus) have been wrong at times in the past)
There is evidence that human activity is effecting climate, I agree, my concern is that I will read next year "the size of the change caused by human activity is 0.3 deg. C but will be drowned out by the much larger change of -0.6 deg C caused by A, B and C unrelated to human activity, never mind"?
Do not get me wrong, I think climate science is great, and all the scientists are doing a great job, but I have seen nothing to convice me that we actually know yet that something really bad will happen to our climate...

univar.jpg Posted by M Rinta on December 24, 2004 12:54 AM
Link to comment
Comments for this entry are closed. Please leave your notes on a more recent comment thread.