Other Views Exist on Crichton's View

Commentary

Casually leafing through the February EXPLORER, I came upon Chris Steincamp's review of Michael Crichton's State of Fear and found myself asking, “Why is an earth science organization reviewing a work of fiction?"

In paragraph three Steincamp provided a four-point response: His four points imply that real scientists are not doing their job, that it is the task of more qualified individuals (such as Michael Crichton) to set these errant scientists straight.

I wish to respond to each of Steincamp's four points.

• "First,” he writes, “much of what passes for science is actually fiction."

Are we to accept footnotes and bibliographies, when appended to novels, as better science than that found in peer-reviewed journals? Following this line of reasoning, one is left with the uncomfortable conclusion that much of what passes for science in the AAPG BULLETIN must be equally fictitious.

• State of Fear “is not an ordinary work of fiction ... meticulously footnoted ... 34 pages of [annotated] bibliographical material ... two appendices. Many papers in esteemed journals of science cannot make equal claims."

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Casually leafing through the [PFItemLinkShortcode|id:40991|type:standard|anchorText:February EXPLORER|cssClass:asshref|title:Chris Steincamp's review of Michael Crichton's State of Fear|PFItemLinkShortcode], I came upon Chris Steincamp's review of Michael Crichton's State of Fear and found myself asking, “Why is an earth science organization reviewing a work of fiction?"

In paragraph three Steincamp provided a four-point response: His four points imply that real scientists are not doing their job, that it is the task of more qualified individuals (such as Michael Crichton) to set these errant scientists straight.

I wish to respond to each of Steincamp's four points.

• "First,” he writes, “much of what passes for science is actually fiction."

Are we to accept footnotes and bibliographies, when appended to novels, as better science than that found in peer-reviewed journals? Following this line of reasoning, one is left with the uncomfortable conclusion that much of what passes for science in the AAPG BULLETIN must be equally fictitious.

• State of Fear “is not an ordinary work of fiction ... meticulously footnoted ... 34 pages of [annotated] bibliographical material ... two appendices. Many papers in esteemed journals of science cannot make equal claims."

True, this is no work of ordinary fiction, but the simple act of citing a reference does not assure that the cited work has been accurately read and represented. And without peer review, which includes a check of references, the credibility of the cited works is open to question.

How many readers of State of Fear will take the time to check his references?

• "Crichton has real science credentials ... undergraduate degree in anthropology and an M.D. from Harvard University. A genus of ankylosaurus is named after him."

Crichton's anthropology and medical degrees alone do not qualify him to critique the whole of global science research. Of course, he is entitled to his “educated” opinions, but these must pass peer review by knowledgeable scientists to carry any weight.

Unfortunately, Crichton's opinions carry a great deal of weight among the general public, not due to his scientific qualifications, but because he is a fantastically successful writer of fiction. And Crichton is no doubt pleased that a dinosaur genus was named after him, but this has no bearing whatsoever on his scientific qualifications.

• "Most importantly, State of Fear is a wide-ranging exposition on the status of climate and earth science."

I would disagree neither with Crichton nor Steincamp that at times there are problems with the peer review process and research funding, points Crichton has also made on the lecture circuit and at his Web site. Most scientists would agree that they should continually reassess the state and direction of their respective sciences.

However, I submit that a novel, even one with references and footnotes, is not the best forum for doing so.

Although I disagree with most of the points raised in Steincamp's review and regret AAPG's decision to publish it, perhaps it will alert the readership to the danger posed by an influential novelist such as Crichton. I hope most AAPG members will read other reviews before drawing any conclusions regarding Crichton's veracity on issues of global warming.

A number of reviews have assessed the literary merits of Crichton's work: "Beware! Tree-Huggers Plot Evil to Save World," by Michiko Kakutani (Dec. 13, 2004, New York Times), "Not So Hot," by Bruce Barcott (Jan. 30, 2005, New York Times.) or "Overheated Imaginations," by Dennis Drabelle (Dec. 26, 2004, Washington Post). The preceding are quite critical of the literary merits of State of Fear, so to offer equal time to opposing views, I would offer George F. Will's piece ("Global Warming? Hot Air," Dec. 23, 2004, Washington Post) or a Wall Street Journal review by Ronald Bailey ("A Chilling Tale," Dec. 10, 2004).

However, many readers will want to go further and examine critically Crichton's scientific assertions. To them I would recommend scientific critiques by David B. Sandalow (see posting of 28 January 2005, www.brookings.edu) and Gavin Schmidt at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, also posted at www.RealClimate.org. They address Crichton's fiction and Will's WSJ review, correcting numerous inaccuracies, misinterpretations and misrepresentations.

Space does not permit recounting all the concerns raised by Sandalow and Schmidt, however, one of Crichton's errors is especially noteworthy. Gavin Schmidt cites dialogue of one of the characters, page 247 of State of Fear: "Dr. [Jim] Hansen overestimated [global warming] by 300 percent." Schmidt notes that Hansen's graphs, published in 1988, contained three curves, based on different assumptions:

"Scenario A had exponentially increasing CO2. Scenario B had a more modest business-as-usual assumption, and scenario C had no further increases in CO2 after 2000."

Schmidt points out that Hansen actually presented only curve B in congressional testimony, and it was global warming skeptic “Patrick Michaels who, in testimony to Congress in 1998, deleted the bottom two curves in order to give the impression that the models were unreliable."

Schmidt's Web site contains an updated version of Hansen's curves on which post-1988 data have been added. These additional data clearly show that Hansen's curve B prediction, the one he presented in 1988 hearings, was quite accurate, and that his models were indeed remarkably reliable.

To distill the critiques of State of Fear to a few words, I present the following. "To claim that (global warming) is a hoax is every novelist's right. To criticize the assumptions and research gaps in global warming theory is any scientist's prerogative. Citing real studies to support the idea of a hoax is ludicrous." (Bruce Barcott, New York Times)

"If (Crichton) has something to say on the science of climate change, he should say so in a work of nonfiction and submit his work for peer review" (David B. Sandalow, posting of Jan. 28, 2005, www.brookings.edu).

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