Book Review: Bad fiction, worse science

Book Review

Bad fiction, worse science

State of Fear by Michael Crichton. New York: Harper Collins, 2004, 624 pp.

Alan Miller

Michael Crichton has achieved celebrity status as a novelist, film director, and television producer/series creator. Trained as a doctor, Crichton never pursued a medical career but instead successfully combined his interest in science with a talent for storytelling. His novels and other productions frequently begin with some scientific underpinning—dangerous organisms brought to earth by space capsules in The Andromeda Strain; dinosaurs restored to life from fossilized DNA in Jurassic Park. In most of his novels, he envelops this scientific content in the now-classic formula of a modern technothriller: starkly defined heroes and villains; Earth or some large part of it at risk of destruction; and beautiful, intelligent, available women saved from death by even more able and heroic men. Crichton’s novels attract many readers who take pleasure in reading understandable explanations of cutting-edge science and technology in the sugarcoating of a mass-market thriller.

In his new novel State of Fear,Crichton retains most of the formula while adding a heavy-handed political message. The scientific content is provided by a running debate on the seriousness of climate change. However, in this case the threat is not from nature or technology run amok, but from a gang of ecoterrorists who attempt to deploy sophisticated technology to simulate natural disasters in an effort to increase media coverage and public fear of the risks of climate change. The ecoterrorists turn out to be in the employ of a national environmental law organization whose leaders are knowingly making fallacious or exaggerated claims about the danger of climate change. Dependent on a “state of fear” to meet the growing financial needs of the organization, the group’s morally bankrupt leader resorts to high-tech terrorism. Fortunately, the evil plot is foiled in classic potboiler fashion at the last minute by a noble trio: a former academic turned secret-agent superhero, a wealthy contributor turned skeptic, and a beautiful female associate.

In the course of telling the story, Crichton paints a picture of climate science that is one-sided, error-ridden, and undeserving of notice from experts in the field. But Crichton sees his commentary on climate science as much more than a backdrop to an adventure story. He incorporates graphs and references to scientific articles into his narrative and ends the book with three annexes: an “Author’s Message,” that lays out his views on environmental policy in general and climate change in particular; an essay titled “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous” that (I am not making this up) compares the history of the eugenics movement and its abuse by the Nazis with the alleged manipulation of climate science; and a 20-page annotated bibliography on environmental science that recommends books and articles that are skeptical about the seriousness of environmental dangers but says nothing about the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the distinguished international body formed to produce consensus reports on climate science.

As numerous reviews have noted, Crichton’s perspective can be seen as a counterpoint to last year’s movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which rapid climate change imperils much of the United States. Judged purely as entertainment, both the book and the movie achieved modest success. The film generated a few fundraising events for environmental groups, but there was little if any effort to present The Day After Tomorrow as a serious scientific statement. In contrast, Crichton has been treated as if he actually possessed a deep understanding of climate science.

He received respectful attention from the self-styled defender of “unconventional wisdom” John Stossel on national television; was featured as a speaker by the prominent Washington, DC, think tank the American Enterprise Institute; and was invited to testify on climate change science before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The committee chairman, Senator Imhofe of Oklahoma, who has stated that global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” called State of Fear required reading for the committee. Although congressional testimony seldom makes national news, the New York Times carried a story on Crichton’s testimony.

The author stakes his claim to scientific legitimacy on the basis of extensive reading. In a tellingly pretentious opening to the “Author’s Message,” he notes that “I have been reading environmental texts for three years, in itself a hazardous undertaking.” From this reading he justifies several sweeping pronouncements, beginning with “We know astonishingly little about every aspect of the environment from its past history, to its present state, to how to conserve and protect it.” Although that is undoubtedly true about Crichton himself, it is a bit presumptuous for him to speak on behalf of the entire scientific community.

Although Crichton takes great pride in his own erudition, his dissertations on climate change are unimpressive to anyone with even an introductory familiarity with the literature. Two points highlighted with figures and footnotes are indicative. The first is an observation often cited by climate skeptics: average global temperatures fell between 1940 and 1970 despite rising CO2 levels. But climate scientists know that CO2 levels are only one of many factors that influence Earth’s climate and that factors such as sulphates and aerosols in the atmosphere that induce cooling can for a time offset the heating caused by increased CO2. Another argument that Crichton must find particularly compelling (because he repeats it so often in the book) is to refer to temperature and sea level measurements at specific places where the local climate is becoming cooler. This would be a relevant argument if global warming meant that the climate would be become warmer everywhere in a consistent pattern (as one character states, “That’s why its called global warming.”). Of course, when scientists talk of global warming they are referring to mean surface temperature across all of Earth. Some places can become cooler even as global warming advances. (A thorough discussion of the science in State of Fear can be found at www.realclimate.org.)

Not satisfied with “debunking” climate science orthodoxy alone, Crichton inflates his argument to encompass a critique of the alleged biases, ignorance, and manipulation of the public through fear that he claims are endemic to organized environmentalism. He characterizes environmentalists as “ideologues and zealots” who indulge in “the intermixing of science and politics” under the direction of leaders “oddly fixed in the concepts and rhetoric of the 1970s.” Almost everything done in the name of the environment was based on questionable or erroneous science: banning DDT was “arguably the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century”; national park management is based on a “history of ignorant, incompetent, and disastrously intrusive intervention”; and banning chlorofluorocarbons harmed Third World people by eliminating cheap refrigerants, which resulted in their food spoiling more often and more of them dying of food poisoning.

In a revealing series of proposals concluding his novel, Crichton proposes several measures to restore honesty and integrity to environmental science and advocacy, including making scientists blind to their funding, creating multiple teams to do competing approaches to major policy-oriented research, prominent labels to indicate when scientific results are based on modeling rather than empirical evidence, and publication of peer reviews with scientific articles to “get the journals out of politics.” He also proposes a renewed focus on technology assessment and creation of a new environmental organization based on the concept “study the problem and fix it” that will be unafraid to upset the status quo. Crichton’s discussion of these ideas as new and untried is one of many signs that three years of reading were insufficient to turn Crichton into an expert on science policy. He might want to return to the library to study the history of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) as a model for the kind of neutral review and reporting function that he so strongly advocates. Perhaps his hubris will be shaken a bit when he learns that many of the members of Congress who are praising his book voted in 1995 to terminate this valuable experiment in attempting to separate science from politics.

Most likely, both State of Fear and The Day After Tomorrow will quickly disappear from public consciousness. However, the use of celebrities to address politically controversial scientific issues is a more lasting and troubling development. The role of celebrities as advocates for social causes is an established practice across the political spectrum. Hollywood stars and professional athletes were part of the entourage of both presidential candidates in 2004. Charlton Heston and Barbara Streisand are both as recognized for their association with political causes as for their movies. Entertainers such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger have used their celebrity to launch successful campaigns for public office. Rarely, however, have celebrities sought to use their fame as a platform to express themselves on the scientific aspects of controversial topics. And if they have, the public attention and impact have been negligible. With Michael Crichton, celebrity science has reached a new and disturbing level.

Novelists, filmmakers, and other entertainers are certainly free to incorporate scientific controversies into their work, and when done effectively, this can provide a valuable educational service. However, when celebrities are treated as scientific experts, the effect is to undermine public understanding. The interpretation and communication of complex scientific matters become simply another public relations game, in which celebrity substitutes for expertise.


Alan Miller () is principal environmental officer at the International Finance Corporation in Washington, DC.