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 V.14 No.2 | January 13 - 19, 2005 

Book Review

Does It Seem Hot in Here?

Crichton’s high school yearbook photo
Crichton’s high school yearbook photo

State of Fear

Michael Crichton
HarperCollins
hardcover
$27.95

An old-time kid's joke goes: "God is love. Love is blind. Ray Charles is blind. Therefore Ray Charles is God." Michael Crichton's polemic-as-novel, State of Fear, displays equally rigorous logic.

Crichton's central theme holds that theories such as eugenics, once accepted by many people as scientifically sound, turned out to be incorrect. Therefore the global warming theory is probably incorrect, too.

If written by an unknown author, State of Fear would be just another clunky thriller, and we wouldn't be talking about it. But Crichton has shaped the book as a manifesto against anyone who takes global warming seriously, and his status as a popularizer of dubious science guarantees this 600-page doorstop will receive wide exposure.

State of Fear is marketed as a novel so let's get characters, style and plot out of the way before tackling Crichton's science project. To call Crichton's characters cartoonish would be an insult to Shrek and Lisa Simpson. The viewpoint character, naïve young lawyer Peter Evans, exists to have things explained to him and to provide a foil to super athlete, warrior, MIT honcho and insufferable know-it-all Richard John Kenner, apparently the author's alter ego.

The book zigzags between adventuring and lecturing. The overbearing heroes lecture unsuspecting environmentalists with passages such as, "Have you ever heard of the geoid? No? The geoid is the equipotential surface of the earth's gravitational field that approximates the mean sea surface. That help you?"

As for action scenes, ya gotta love the opener. A Callow Young Assistant working at a marine laboratory near Paris encounters a Sinister Asian Beauty hot to tour his tsunami-simulating laboratory. The SAB then lures the CYA to her apartment for a quickie, after which three goons burst in. They pin the CYA down on the bed and hold a cold, squishy baggie in his armpit so the tiny octopus inside can bite him, thus allowing the SAB to push the CYA into the Seine just as the octopus poison paralyzes him. This supremely silly scene delays Crichton's festival of disinformation for a few pages, but it has little to do with the rest of the plot.

Yeah, the plot. Evil enviros are brainwashing the world with the bogus theory of global warming. To bolster their claims they secretly acquire high-tech equipment, hoping to trigger lightning storms and tsunamis to publicize a lawsuit brought by the inhabitants of the island of Vanutu against the United States for aggravating global warming. Their hit men drive a Prius. Far as I can tell, this isn't meant as parody.

Crichton tries to have it three ways. Although marketed as a novel, State of Fear is presented as a scientific call to arms. Crichton scatters his usual graphs and odd fonts through the text, then tries to augment the appearance of authority with footnotes, an appendix, an author's statement and 20 pages of references annotated with praise for the works of climate skeptics. But Crichton has fudged the science to the point he'd be laughed off stage if he marketed the work as nonfiction.

To produce the endless misleading passages, he uses several techniques repeatedly.

There's the head fake. The main characters visit Iceland for an intense scene with a scientist who claims that his work has been suppressed because it shows that Iceland's glaciers are actually growing, thus disproving global warming. Later a character mentions in passing that Iceland's glaciers are anomalies, and Crichton finesses mention of shrinking glaciers.

Another technique is the dishonest edit, most egregiously deployed against the work of Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. A character says Hansen's 1988 study predicting rising temperatures caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gasses was "wrong by 300 percent." Hansen's study actually included three scenarios—a worst case scenario modeling the effect of exponential growth in gasses, a more probable scenario of "business as usual," and a scenario in which gasses are dramatically reduced. Crichton portrays the worst case scenario as Hansen's sole conclusion, without mentioning that Hansen's "business as usual" scenario was right on target. In a Dec. 13 New York Times interview with Andrew C. Revkin, Hansen said, "Crichton has taken what is actually a triumph of climate science prediction and pretended that it is a failure."

Repeatedly Crichton ignores conclusive data pointing in one direction to depict atypical, opposing data as the real story. Global average temperatures dropped about half a degree Fahrenheit between 1940 and 1970 before rising again steeply. Meanwhile atmospheric carbon dioxide steadily increased, which, according to Crichton, disproves the connection between rising CO2 and rising temperatures.

Not so fast. In a phone interview, Dr. David S. Gutzler of the University of New Mexico's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences said that other factors operated during the 30 year period. First, temperature rises are less smooth and steady than the rise in CO2, so a one-to-one comparison really isn't valid. Second, during the mid 20th century, increased pollution in the form of air-borne particles temporarily counteracted the rise in temperature caused by CO2, thus lowering temperatures. When the United States and Europe enacted effective antipollution laws in the '70s, pollution lessened and no longer masked the ongoing rise due to CO2. Third, a slight variation in the brightness of the sun possibly lowered temperatures temporarily, a difficult factor to measure.

For a last sample, there's the stuff Crichton just plain gets wrong. A character says, "Carbon dioxide has increased from 316 parts per million to 376 parts per million. 60 parts per million is the total increase. Now, that's such a small change in our entire atmosphere that it is hard to imagine."

For starters, atmospheric carbon dioxide, extremely stable at about 275 parts per million (ppm) for millennia, has risen to over 375 ppm in the last 150 years—a rise of about 100 ppm, not 60 ppm. More importantly, very small changes in atmospheric components are disruptive. That's why they're measured in parts per million.

As for sins of omission, Crichton ignores vast amounts of data supporting global warming: warming ocean waters, the faster rise of nighttime low temperatures than of daytime highs, accelerated Arctic warming, the expected variation in regional effects and disruption among heat-sensitive species.

That's the brickbats, so now come the bouquets. (And I must disclose that I work with a climate change group.) Crichton's screed may have done climate activists a favor. He relentlessly trots out characters that spout inane exaggerations about global warming, then brings in Kenner and his minions to debunk them. It's a warning to environmentalists not to overstate how far damage has progressed, and a warning to use primary and secondary sources instead of carelessly repeating the exaggerations of a media usually uninterested in any threat that's not killing Americans on camera.

For those who want to know more about global climate change but don't want to slog through this deeply silly and dishonest book, www.realclimate.org, a site maintained by climate scientists, covers the topic in general and currently is focusing on refuting many of Crichton's assertions. For the more seriously interested, UNM regularly offers David Gutzler's Global Climate Change class, although it will likely be filled for the 2005 spring semester by the time this is published.

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