Friday, January 28, 2005


Taking on Michael Crichton - and scientific illiteracy

Fine stuff on science from Gristmill, an environmental blog.
Who you gonna believe?

Posted by Dave Roberts at 11:41 PM on 20 Jan 2005

I'm currently writing a review of Michael Crichton's new book State of Fear (should be done and published next week, several months after anybody gives a damn). In it, smarty-pants characters who think global warming is a hoax argue against borderline-retarded characters who believe it's a real phenomenon. The smarty-pants cite many scientific papers in support of their view; the borderline-retarded do not.

Setting aside the dubious literary merits of this arrangement, it raises an interesting question I think people ought to discuss more forthrightly: Why do non-scientists believe what they believe about global warming?

(Warning: extended ramble ahead. Click at your own risk.)

I'm not a scientist. I know more about science generally and some fields in particular than the average American, which isn't saying much. I know about as much science as the average over-educated liberal-arts-focused elite progressive coastal urban intellectual bluestate American (OELAFEPCUIBA) ... which still isn't saying very much. Why do I believe that anthropocentric global warming is a genuine phenomenon? Why do I believe in genes, or the big bang, or evolution, or electromagnetism, or hell, molecules, none of which I've ever seen? Because scientists say so.

I do not collect empirical evidence, run experiments, formulate conclusions, try to duplicate results, and develop theories on these matters. Even if I did, it would take me many thousands of lifetimes to catch up with what science has already done. So I take scientists' word for it. I keep an open mind, yes, but overall I take it on their authority.

Now, some folks say, "that makes science a religion for you. Your faith is no different from mine. I think God created us 6,000 years ago; you think we evolved. That's where the debate ends."

No. Taking scientists on authority means believing in the methods of science. I believe that the slow, incremental, self-correcting, empirical work of the scientific community is producing accurate information (let us dodge the larger metaphysical debate about capital-R Reality for now, hm?). This belief has paid overwhelming pragmatic dividends for humanity, particularly in this last century. Science works.

When it comes to the debate over global warming, it is all but irrelevant that Crichton can cite individual papers in support of his skepticism. You recall that "the current thinking of scientists on climate change is based on thousands of studies. Any new study will be one small grain of evidence that adds to this big pile, and it will shift the thinking of scientists slightly." What matters are not the individual papers but the collective result -- i.e., the consensus -- which is robust and squarely behind the basic notion of anthropocentric climate change.


Let me summarize: The central question about global warming for the average citizen is, who do you trust? Do you trust the consensus of scientists working in the field, or do you believe Crichton and his band of conservative ideologues that the consensus is systematically biased by sociopolitical pressure?

Don't be impressed by footnotes and bibliographies. Don't start thinking you can, as a layman, judge the scientific issues for yourself, anymore than you could adjudicate between conflicting geological theories of tectonic plate drift. Your only recourse is to suss out, as best you can, who's on the up and up.

Me, I'm going with the scientists.
Me too. The fact that we can't answer all questions now does not mean that there are no answers, nor does it mean that you can substitute for those answers with just anything you want. Scientists discover the truth - they don't invent the truth. They also - and this is crucial - deal with evidence that goes against their treasured hypothesis. To do otherwise - to pretend that adverse evidence does not exist - worse, to attempt to hide it - is among the 3 or 4 worst sins a scientist can commit.

Michael Crichton loves to do that. He also loves to take contrarian points of view that are always strangely comforting to fat rich white guys. In Disclosure, he pretended that female sexual harassment of men is somehow worse than the reverse, even though male sexual harassment of women is far far more prevalent. Now, in State of Fear, he gives the anti-global warming side much more respect than the vast majority of climate scientists who think global warming is real and dangerous. In short, he's a hack. And, unfortunately, a very popular and influential one.

(Thanks to Chris C. Mooney for the link.)
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