Science versus Pseudoscience:
a Review of State of Fear
Ten years ago, when Michael Crichton’s new book, State of Fear was published, I was among the first in line to read the new hardcover edition. I hadn’t read the author since I was a teenager, and I needed a light read reminiscent of The Great Train Robbery and Sphere.
State of Fear was anything but the fun-loving adventure story, and, as a voracious reader of climate science, I easily and quickly saw through the book as an error-ridden, and awfully written political diatribe on environmental science.
I laughed the book off, but ten years later, I am surprised to find that many I meet with actually use it as their primary source of information for their disbelief in climate change science.
I believe that science is the best tool we have to explain the natural world, and is superior to it’s alternatives: pseudoscience (ideas which claim to be scientific, but are incompatible with the scientific method), antiscience (rejection of the scientific method as the best approach to knowledge) and politically-motivated fake news.
Throughout my adult life, I have deliberately taught myself to think and communicate in the language of science, and to be able to sniff out non-scientific claims.
Drawing Climate Change Conclusions from a Thriller
By the time Crichton died in 2008, he had become the world’s most famous climate change denier - it all started with the publication of State of Fear.
For anybody who draws their conclusions about climate change from a science fiction thriller, try this. Step back for a minute and think about that. Was that really the right way to learn about climate science?
No doubt, we should always learn about anything from multiple sources; challenging any one piece of information before us. But, is a work of science fiction as credible as, say, NASA, or science journals, scientific academies?
When I read State of Fear in 2004, there were several things I disliked about the book; many of those were themes that were common among America’s anti-environmentalists at that time. Let me talk about a few of those:
Michael Crichton Peddled Pseudoscience in the Past
Michael Crichton ’s 1988 non-fiction book, Travels, shows his interest in pseudoscience. The book is about his interest in mysticism, out-of-body experiences, astral projection, and fortune-telling. Tellingly, in this book, he shows his disdain for science. I remember one section in which he attacked Carl Sagan as a proponent of real science. I found that quote here:
“Skeptical scientists often point out, as Carl Sagan has, that the wonders of real science far surpass the supposed wonders of fringe science. I think it is possible to invert that idea, and to say that the wonders of real consciousness far surpass what conventional science admits can exist.”
The book Travels sets us up for what Michael Crichton is: somebody who looks down on real science, and who is tantalized by its alternatives. Is this really somebody who we should trust on a subject of real science?
Michael Crichton’s Depiction of Academics and Environmentalists is Misleading
The bulk of State of Fear is about characters who are archetypes of different forms of environmentalists, scientists and conservationists. Each of these archetypes are common straw men in right-wing circles in the United States.
From the year 2005 to 2015, or one-quarter of my life, I worked with a diverse group of environmentalists, environmental lawyers and marine scientists. I was able to get to know many of them well. From personal experience, I know that the personality traits of this group of people is very different than the pencil-necked eco-terrorists which Crichton fictionalized to pad his arguments. The problem with using science fiction to attack climate science is that it allowed the author the cheap opportunity to attack climate scientists through the classic logical fallacy of ad hominem (attacking the character) without having to cite the weaknesses in character of actual climate scientists.
I remember working with scientists as a journalist, and what I saw was: hyper-intelligent critical thinkers who were also warm, friendly, fair, and who loved their planet. If Crichton set out to write about climate, why did he need to invoke the Straw Man fallacy and falsely attack the character of scientists and environmentalists by maliciously mischaracterizing them through fiction?
I have also met environmental scientists who are hot-headed and wear their personal views on their sleeves, although they are minority. The point is, scientists are human and so are therefore prone to the same faults as the rest of us.
Nevertheless, despite the personal weaknesses of individual scientists, the scientific method works.
Let me restate that for emphasis - despite the personal weaknesses of individual scientists, the scientific method is the world’s only methodology that has a better track record than 50/50.
Michael Crichton ’s Use of a Large Bibliography is Misleading
Many readers who rely on the information in State of Fear for climate change are impressed by the large bibliography at the back of Crichton’s book. Using a large bibliography is actually a common technique in anti-environmental books, because it makes the arguments look like they have some authority behind them. It looks like Crichton did his work.
In fact, Crichton's novel was rehashing pseudoscientific ideas that were being passed around on the internet at the time, and the scientists’ referenced in the bibliography have criticized the book for misunderstanding their work or taking it out of context.
If anyone were to actually follow the sources in Crichton's bibliography, they would find that the author's he referenced came to diametrically opposed viewpoints as Crichton.
Michael Crichton ’s Main Points were Already Obliterated by Science Before the Book was Published
Here are a few examples:
Urban Heat Island Effect
One of Crichton's central arguments in State of Fear is that cities are warmer than rural areas, and that scientists erred in basing their rising temperature calculations on urban areas.
The Urban Heat Island Effec and it's impact on measuring temperatures had already been well researched years before the publication of State of Fear, and scientists concluded that it had only a minimal impact on global rising temperatures.
Crichton, following well-trodden denialist myths, ignored the peer-reviewed science, as well as the fact that temperature was measured in many different ways. Ocean temperatures, far from cities, were rising as well.
Skeptical Science has a thorough explanation of the Urban Heat Island Effect.
In State of Fear, Crichton claims that banning chlorofluorocarbons harmed Third World people by eliminating cheap refrigerants. This claim was founded on his belief that chlorofluorocarbons did not impact the ozone layer. But in fact, global regulations that eliminated the use of CFC's around the world is well regarded as one of humankind's defining environmental successes. Unlike Crichton's claim, the banning of CFCs led to cost-effective replacement technologies around the world.
Michael Crichton ’s State of Fear Attacked Cornerstones of Global Environmentalism, not just Climate Change
In State of Fear, Crichton hashed out several common refrains from U.S. anti-environmentalism. When he claimed in the book, for example, that, “Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler,” he was probably inspired by a book by Ann Coulter that was published a year before. Mind you, one of the other major points in Crichton’s book is that the theory of climate change is invalid because academics from a hundred years ago believed in eugenics, the racial theory that inspired the nazis. This example is often invoked by antiscience communicators, but it is a weak argument considering the success of modern science.
Nobody in their right mind would blame the limiting of DDT use on the untold deaths caused by malaria. With all the venom this injects on the human female reproductive system, and its potential for catastrophic long term effects on the environment, Crichton’s claim is insane anti-environmentalist nonsense.
Here is a good summary of the DDT myth.
In Travels, Crichton singles out the science communicator Carl Sagan as representing the inherent weakness of science. But actually, I strongly suggest Reading Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, which goes on the attack against pseudoscience and antiscience of the era, and offers a great chapter on being able to detect anti science baloney. While written several decades ago, The Demon-haunted World is a great layman’s tool in deciphering claims. The six rules of his baloney detection kit are as follows:
Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.
Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations.
If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified…. You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.