The Daily Bongo

State of Fear

Michael Crichton always seems to be able to come up with books that wind up being very topical. With his latest book, State of Fear, Crichton takes on the topic of global warming and abrupt climate change. As usual, Crichton has throughly researched the topic (reading environmental materials for the past three years), and provides copious footnotes and a bibliography to materials that were used or might be of interest to the reader. What is also abit of a coincidence is that the book opens with a young graduate student in Paris showing off a machine used by reseaarchers to create tsunamis in a lab. The book was released shortly before the devastating tsunami which makes one wonder if Crichton has a crystal ball that allows him to know what might make his books even more appealing. The book is controversial because a large percentage of people want to believe that global warming is a fact AND that it is caused by what man has been doing with the planet.

Crichton writes the type of books that I like. There are plenty of thrills and non-stop action. Is it plausible that the lawyer for the philanthropist that contributes to NERF, an environment activist group, would be running around the globe with an MIT/FBI agent type who is fighting against radical environmental groups? Not really, but that doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the thrill ride. Obviously the book is fiction and is meant to be entertaining while providing some leasons in science. After all, even Crichton's web site refers to him as the "undisputed master of the techno-thriller".

The basic plot of the story is that an environmental activist group called NERF (National Environmental Resource Fund) is planning a lawsuit against the US for a Pacific island called Vanutu which is supposedly going to be destroyed by rising sea levels. Why the US? Because it is the biggest producer of carbon dioxide. A philanthropist, George Morton, has been providing millions of dollars for the effort, but then he begins to question where his donation is going. In comes an MIT professor, Dr. Kenner, who has some shadowy ties to the FBI. It seems that Morton is right, and the money isn't going to the lawsuit, but to fund terrorist activities. These activities include plans to create disasters that will lead people to believe in the validity and threat of abrupt climate change. Things become complicated when George Morton dies in a fiery car crash. It then becomes a race against time with Kenner, Peter Evans, a junior lawyer in the law firm that George Morton uses, and Sarah Jones, Morton's personal assistant trying to track down the nefarious activities of NERF and its head, lead bad guy, Nicholas Drake. Will they manage to stop the cataclysmic events that will result in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people? Along the way, we begin to question our beliefs as Peter Evans does. Is global warming a fact? What is the cause of this global warming? And what, if anything, can man do to stop it?

Crichton brings up some interesting points about the bias of scientists and the role that the government and the media play in orchestrating a "state of fear". The first point is the bias of scientists. Scientists are just as biased as the normal person. The problem is that the bias is enflamed with the grant process. If you are given money by a particular group to prove a certain point, will you try to prove or disprove the point? If you are given money to prove that sea levels are rising, then that is what you will do. Another problem is that scientists will interpret results based on their personal biases. The way to control for this is with double blind studies, but those tend to be expensive and time consuming. It's also in conflict with the places that provide the funding who don't want to find out the truth, they just want to confirm their bias. Scientists also bias their results by the data that goes into the research. What span of years do they look at and why? What was the reliability of the temperatures that were taken? Were modifications made based on the differences in equipment? How accurate/consistent the person was in reading the temperature in interpreting past data? You can see that the list of questions can go on and on, and that is what makes future predictions extremely difficult.

As for the "state of fear", how better to control your populace than by giving them an evil that they need to collectively fear. In the 50s we learned to fear the hidden communist in our midst. In the 60s, there was the cold war. In the 80s, there was nuclear winter. After 2001, there has been the fear of the terrorist within our midst. The goal is to get your population to concentrate on those fears as opposed to things that we should be concerned about, such as poverty and what are government leaders are actually doing. How do you inflame the state of fear over global warming? You get scientists to concur with your opinion. You claim that those who oppose it are paid off by "big business", and you get the media to pass on one-sided information to the general populace as the whole story. The last thing we as an informed citizenry should want is any political agenda involved in supporting one side of an argument. That means that you aren't getting science, you are getting political philosophy.

The scientists involved in climate research rely alot on computer models. The thing is that these computer models are only as good as the information put into them, and as good as the real understanding of the problem. After all, the computer models are programs made by the scientists who are trying to prove or disprove a point. This brings up the question of whether we really understand the problem. The history of climate research is a short one. There are many variables that are involved in climate, and some scientists and the media would like you to believe that we have 100% understanding of the climate, the causes of changes, AND the knowledge of how to fix the supposed problem. Think of it for a second. They have such a through and complete understanding of the climate and weather patterns. We know for a certainty what is going to be happening 100 years from now and we can manufacture computer models that prove the conclusion--and yet, we can't predict our own weather patterns beyond a 10 day period. And guess what? We usually get it wrong!

The biggest problem with the concept of global warming is that we don't know what we are talking about. There was a recent report that was released that stated that the famed "computer model" has found that global warming is a fact. As Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (the scientist behind the study) proclaims, the debate on global warming and the human race's role in it is over for the "rational person". Obviously, only the irrational and stupid would question whether this one study has it right. Well, I do question it, and I am rational. What is Barnett's bias? How did he come up with the model? What is the peer review of his work? If the sea levels are rising, why does he believe that it is based on mankind, and not trends that are natural for the planet? Does he have evidence that lowering carbon dioxide levels will stop the process of global warming or are there other factors involved? Do we know what the other factors are? Can we be assured that what we do will FIX the problem and not worsen it? Based on the short time that scientists have been studying the topic, I don't think that we have the resources to make such blanket statements of fact. Just because another scientist disagrees doesn't mean he is in the pocket of "big companies", but that his findings differ. We need less bias and more science in the study of the climate, but that may not be politically possible.

Thank you, Michael Crichton, for entertaining me and for making me think about such things.

Sunday, February 20, 2005