Sunday, February 19, 2006

Fictional "Science" For Fictional Policy

by Tom Bozzo

The NYT reports this morning on Fred Barnes's account of a Bush meeting with "novelist" (*) Michael Crichton over Crichton's State of Fear:
Mr. Barnes, who describes Mr. Bush as "a dissenter on the theory of global warming," writes that the president "avidly read" the novel and met the author after Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, arranged it. He says Mr. Bush and his guest "talked for an hour and were in near-total agreement."
Just remember, kids, Bush is drowning those polar bears in the name of courageous dissent from that oppressive scientific establishment.
Mr. Crichton, whose views in "State of Fear" helped him win the American Association of Petroleum Geologists' annual journalism award this month, has been a leading doubter of global warming and last September appeared before a Senate committee to argue that the supporting science was mixed, at best.
That says something about what it takes to be a "leading doubter" of global warming. Fiction writer and a president whose "1-1=5" budget policies make Richard Cohen look like a math professor. The tactic of putting real scientists before congressional panels against opinion fabricators like Crichton is a big part of the Republican war on science, vividly described in Chris Mooney's eponymous book.
"This shows the president is more interested in science fiction than science," Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said after learning of the White House meeting. Mr. O'Donnell's group monitors environmental policy.
If we're going to have science-fictional policies, couldn't it at least be good science fiction? Evidently not under Bushism.

Addendum: Michael Bérubé has some of Crichton's greatest hits.

(*) I can't say that I go out of my way to read Crichton, and it was so long ago that I read The Andromeda Strain that I have no recollection of the style. From having read Jurassic Park and Airframe off others' shelves in the '90s, you can't help but struck by the artlessness of his style — as if the slightest figurative or subtextual element would have halved the mass-market paperback sales.
Oh no, Bush met a novelist? Is there a picture of Crichton and Abramhoff too?

You don't give Crichton enough credit. Perhaps he's kept his mind open and changed his stance after Jim Hansen's recently published work on Earth's energy imbalance. Or maybe he has changed his stance since the satellite data that showed little warming was found to be due to errors, and instead now knows that the warming is much larger and in general agreement with ground based observations. I doubt that Crichton would disagree that the Earth is warming. In fact, he think the Earth will warm by about 0.9˚C over the next century, FWIW. I do think he would disagree that the consequences of global warming will be as dire as many have suggested, and I bet that Crichton's right on that part.
You're right about Crichton's writing. Any time I try to read his work I stop about halfway through and ask myself, "Good lord, is this seriously a professional?" Sometimes (e.g. "Sphere") I have a similar experience at the end.
Bryan: Abramoff has a role in the conservative pundit payola scandal, and if buying a placement for pseudoscience in popular fiction hasn't happened yet, it could. Does Crichton have an open mind? It's possible, but it isn't him I'm concerned about. You want to look me in the eye and tell me that Bush's views on global warming are more scientifically principled than his "teach the controversy" views on ID creationism? If so, based on what evidence?

Drek: Yeah.
Unlike with ID, you could do actual science on climate change that doesn't fit within the consensus viewpoint. ID is not science. That's not to say that Bush is interested in any actual scientific viewpoint, so I agree with you for the most part. But, I don't see how meeting with Crichton will affect policy either way. Crichton believes that the climate models need to be validated for 10 to 20 more years, in effect, wait and see. This is probably Bush's viewpoint too.

It may be disastrous to wait any longer, but since James Hansen has been harping about this to Congress since 1985 or so, I find it difficult to believe that all of the responsibility lies on Bush's shoulders. Democrats have failed to act too. I don't know the reason for that, but it may be that the dire consequences we hear about so often are mostly bunk. Alternatively, it could be that few politicians think long term. We voted down the Kyoto Treaty like 97-3 in the Senate and Clinton was against it, right? The countries that signed the Kyoto Treaty are largely failing to meet their targets. It seems to me that despite all the talk, no one is really serious about global warming. If few are truly serious about global warming, then meeting with someone who writes fiction doesn't seem to be a big problem.
We're in agreement that further research may or may not support the global warming consensus. Nor do I disagree that there are forces that would preserve the status quo on both sides of the aisle. (Though, as a factual matter, Kyoto has never been submitted to the Senate for ratification. Also, thr protocol has formally been in effect for barely a year, so it's too early to judge its success.)

A bigger problem is that while 'wait and see' might be how Bush policy policy might be characterized for public consumption, 'wait and don't see' may better reflect what they're actually doing -- in their attempts to suppress pro-consensus climate science (you really should read Chris Mooney's book for something that will turn you into a libertarian, or at least a non-Bushist Republican) as well as things like cutting funding for earth science NASA missions. Doing that in the face of the scientific consensus strikes me as very dangerous.
Bryan's assertion that "you could do actual science on climate change that doesn't fit within the consensus viewpoint" is, not to put too fine a point on it, inaccurate at its best.

More fearsome, of course, is that Critchton didn't understand the sources he cited, as one of those sources noted rather publicly.

You can make an economic argument that the cost of climate change can't be PVd currently as a positive ROI project (see the final 'graf of Brad DeLong's evisceration of Bjorn Lomborg, where he lets Lomborg off the mat), but that's an argument of economics, not of science.
Ken, I read Bryan as suggesting that legitimate climate science could reinforce the consensus, or not. Bryan can chime in as to whether this is correct.

From scanning some of Crichton's contrarian writings on the environment, I agree that his marshalling of the evidence seems to be selective at best. The problem for non-experts bucking the scientific consensus is that the temptation is enormous to select evidence consistent with one's priors (or, as the case may be, that takes one to a revision of those priors that's lucrative, foremost). That this might occasionally lead non-experts to belief -- if belief contingent on the scientific consensus -- in concepts like the heliocentric universe is the exception that proves the rule.
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