What a man was the "Admirable Crichton". At 17, James, son of Robert Crichton, Scotland’s Elizabethan Lord Advocate, could successfully dispute any subject in twelve languages at the Sorbonne and defeat all comers in a jousting tournament at the Louvre. Add to this Aristotelian legal prodigy’s qualifications a Harvard MD, an extra foot of height, and disarming modesty, and you get a creature akin to the present Crichton, Michael, who is by some accounts even able to change minds in Washington D.C. But what about his own? His sense of modesty is about to be tested.
In 1928 Bertrand Russell adduced a principle relevant to today’s climate change debate. One he feared would “ appear wildly paradoxical and subversive.
The doctrine is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition
when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.” Yet he warned
against going so far as Plato’s friend “ Pyrrho…who seeing his teacher
with his head stuck in a ditch… walked on, maintaining that there was
no sufficient ground for pulling the old man out. “ Decency and
commonsense instead dictate admitting “ any well-established result of
science, not as certainly true, but as sufficiently probable to afford
a basis for rational action.”
Michael Crichton’s ‘State Of Fear “ is in many ways admirable. But like Pyrro, he takes its skeptical exposure of environmentalists in denial a step too far. Hype is not synonymous with hoax. To characterize global warming as nothing more than a manufactured consensus based on the deliberate misrepresentation of science risks self parody , even if the American Enterprise Institute is too obtuse to get the joke.
The basic problem is one State Of Fear addresses --science cannot be proven by a show of hands. Though Crichton’s fans are legion, national climate policy cannot rely on a work of science fiction whose author is shy of debating its premises- a principle that applies even more acutely to Al Gore , whose eminently fiskable film makes a mockery of his ownmanta'The Debate Is Over!"
Interdisciplinary problems deserve serious dispute. Russell noted: “ There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when experts all agree, they may well be mistaken... I advocate … (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds … exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment. “
Crichton correctly points out that climate science has much to be modest about. ‘State of Fear’ voices the skepticism many, including myself, voiced two decades ago- that peer-reviewed temperature records invited authentic confusion as to whether global temperatures were going up, down or sideways.. But when I wrote in 1990 that the jury was out on the quality of the data , I had to allow for the contingency of ”an unambiguously toasty third millennium-when I have spoken of uncertainty I have meant what I said.” Not ‘State of Fear’. Putting his faith in temperature readings from satellite radiometers, Crichton defies the scientific majority, and concludes that the theory of greenhouse warming is in practice mistaken.
He invokes satellite temperature data not once but a half dozen times, providing footnotes for emphasis, and contrasting its presumptive objectivity with ground-based records corrupted by urban warmth and shifting demographics. “State of fear’s heroes demand to be shown global warming globally, and when satellites orbiting the globe fail to deliver the proof, they adamantly conclude that reports of warming are a fraud, and computer models of future climate a delusion.
To confirm us in the belief that he is right and not a quixotic representative of intelligent design or another neoconservative scientific counterculture, Crichton points to an authority figure of his own :“ the most visible of global warming skeptics” Professor S. Fred Singer, once America’s “Director of Weather Satellite Service and Director for the Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences.” There is something odd about this sub-secretarial characterization, but much can be said for taking things on authority, and Crichton, like Russell, clearly doesn’t believe that all is doubt and indeterminacy. Yet the distinction between productive and reflexive skepticism is not a trivial one..
Pure contrarians tend to be wrong half the time, but some. Like Singer, are not so lucky. Singer did not believe in ozone depletion either, but his views did not prevail over the evidence-- the Reagan Administration signed the Montreal protocol anyway, for Singer’s dissent failed to make the grade by getting published under scrutiny in skeptically peer reviewed science journals - the eloquent contrarian never adduced any experimental evidence to refute the prevailing consensus.
Like Crichton, neoconservative policy makers have bet the farm on the failure of decades of satellite based temperature observations to demonstrate global warming on a par with the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But a year after ‘State Of fear appeared the disparity between the international scientific consensus Crichton rejects and the satellite record he accepts was the object of a peer reviewed study published in the flagship journal of The American Association for the Advancement of Science. The literal rocket scientiststs responsible for the satellites reexamined exactly what it was that they were measuring, and the results were clear and emphatic. A host of Singer’s former colleagues , including some eminently skeptical about warming, concluded that for decades, errors in (ironically) computer models ,had disconnected satellite temperature readings from their correct locations on the ground.
Instead of staring down at local high noon, and clocking in peak temperatures in the midday sun, the walleyed gaze of a flying circus of satellites had systematically underreported daytime highs. The missing several tenths of a degree Celsius of warming separating the ‘consensus’ from the computer models had been found – hiding in plain sight in the very satellite data that underpins ‘State Of Fear’.
Crichton’s book repeatedly emphasizes the duty of scientists to change their minds when the data does. Now it’s his turn to do so, or risk joining the ranks of those who have disregarded the evidence to sell the very factoids, like ‘nuclear winter ‘ that Crichton has so admirably deplored.
But what about Singer? Wasn't Galileo an obscure scientist persecuted by consensus? Yes, but we celebrate Galileo not because he was persecuted, but because he was right. We can and should go on celebrating Singer’s precocious advocacy of weather satellites despite their calibration having being so forgetably wrong.It happens - even at highest levels of scientific gamesmanship, for there is no hypothesis so perverse that two Nobel laureates cannot be found to endorse it- witness the misrepresentation of science to the public in the case of ‘Nuclear Winter .But neither does it matter if the hypesters are late cold war collectivists tapping the environment as a tool for promoting societal intervention, or free market advocates trying to keep them from succeeding.The data must rule both.
Society can’t very well complain about science descending into the realm of advertising as long as the gullible volunteer an audience for agenda-driven advocacy masquerading as contrarianism. Seeing both sides of the greatest of environmental debates puzzled for decades by reams of dead-wrong data has a tragic dimension, but sometimes it is better to have science policy debated as comedy of manners than not at all. As Crichton, perhaps alerted to the forthcoming appearance of the revised climate record, candidly noted during ‘State of Fear’s celebration by AEI ”It’s just a movie.” So is “The Day After Tomorrow.”
‘State Of Fear’ commences with Mark Twain’s observation that ‘ there is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” Which is exactly why it is perilous to the Republic when scientific facts are trifled with politically by either-or both sides.
Crichton is right to question the motives of some of the darker Greens who dictate the received environmental wisdom of Hollywood and PBS, but Twain also famously remarked that a mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it, a scene whose modern rendition might feature an honest geologist being thrown into the hole by two lawyers. Yet it is to the amply counseled business of profitably extracting energy from the Earth that Crichton has turned in trying to fathom the statistical depths of the climate record. If relying on mining economists as interpreters of weather maps is not enough to alarm the truly skeptical, perhaps his own words will:’ you deal with a lot of judgment calls in putting together the climate record…whenever you have one team doing all the jobs, then you are at risk for bias.”
Which is why pique at Crichton’s faltering sense of the sardonic should be tempered by his suggestion, voiced at AEI, Cal Tech and elsewhere, that all parties to the climate debate be obliged to post all of their raw data on the internet all of the time, Given the damage done by the 20th century collision of science and ideology, it is a wholly admirable proposal. One the IPCC would do well tocherish.