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September 29, 2005

Senate questions Michael Crichton on global warming

Yesterday, pulp fiction writer and global warming denier Michael Crichton testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 - His last book, "State of Fear," was published more than nine months ago, but the reviews were still pouring in on Wednesday, even as Michael Crichton folded his 6-foot-9-inch frame into a seat to testify before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

"More silly than scary," the flier dropped off by the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

"Notable mainly for its nuttiness," an analysis from the Brookings Institution said.

"Does not reflect scientific fact," the Union of Concerned Scientists said.

For all his previous works as a writer (13 novels, 4 nonfiction books, numerous screenplays) and his prominent career in Hollywood as a writer, producer or director of 13 films and as the creator of the popular television series "ER," little has yanked Mr. Crichton so deeply into political controversy as "State of Fear," an environmental thriller that casts doubt on the widely held notion that human activities contribute to global warming. [...] (Keep reading, it gets worse) [NYT permalink]

So, global warming deniers like Senator James M. Inhofe have been reduced to calling witnesses who write fiction about how global warming is fiction.

In other news, the Northwest Passage completely defrosted this summer.

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"In other news, the Northwest Passage completely defrosted this summer. "

Damn! I should have held onto that East India Company Stock!

I guess this explains why the Repubevangelicals are up in arms over the DaVinci code. . . they put a bit too much stock in fiction.

The vast majority of people who are confident that anthropogenic global warming poses a significant threat have virtually no understanding of either climatology (either historical or dynamical) or of the computer modeling techniques underlying doomsday scenarios. They are reduced to appeals to authority -- technically, an informal fallacy. Yet they presume to criticize people like Crichton who at least try to think for themselves. How sad.

I'm not criticizing Michael Crichton for thinking for himself. I am, however, criticizing Senator Inhofe for inviting someone with no qualifications to testify before a committee of the US Senate.


Appeals to people who have studied the subject, rather than those who have produced shoddily-written novels about it, are an informal fallacy? Usually I find the commenters on this blog to be intelligent and thoughtful people. Usually!

Now, there's something I don't understand about global warming. Does the immediate temperature change (only a few degrees, right?) affect the poles more than it does the rest of the world? Or is the arctic ice simply so close to 0 degrees Celsius already that it doesn't take much to melt a whole bunch of it?

Yet they presume to criticize people like Crichton who at least try to think for themselves.

Sure, Bob -- by that logic, we should also praise people who believe in intelligent design, because at least they try to think for themselves, instead of appealing to scientific authority.

Seriously, what kind of understanding of climatology do you think Michael Crichton has?

Appeal to authority can represent an informal fallacy, even if those appealed to actually are authorities. Logic/epistemollogy is funny that way. You see, unless you actually know at least a little bit about climatology and/or computer modeling, you can't recognize expertise relevant to the question at hand. I claim that's the situation of the vast majority of those who are "convinced" that anthropgenic global warming poses a serious threat.

Crichton doesn't claim to know much about climatology, but if you do some background checking, you'll find that what really concerns him is the way science has become politicized, and not just by right wing ideologues. It is politically incorrect to question the global warming consensus, even if one's questions are well-founded. That's sad.

pdf23ds-
It's pretty simple when you think about it. There's a continuum of temperatures from the equator to the poles. At some point as you go north (or south,) you hit a line where the ocean freezes over in winter. As go further, you eventually get to a point where winter temperatures are cold enough that ice cover persists all year. Then the further you go, the thicker the ice. You can see satellite maps of sea ice here: http://nsidc.org/sotc/sea_ice.html
With even slightly warmer temperatures, the position of the southerly extent of Arctic sea ice recedes.
Then something else happens. Ice is white and very reflective of solar energy. Water is dark and very absorbent of solar energy. So when the ice recedes, the water heats up more. The warm water melts more of the ice, and the process of melting speeds up.
This doesn't mean that there are no global warming effects further south. In the Canadian Rockies, for example, forests of lodgepole pines are dying of bark beetle infestation. The beetles used to be held in check because they died off in cold winters. No more.
But the arctic melt is the most obvious and most dramatic effect of global warming.

Bob,

Again, if you want to see why your position doesn't hold up, just replace "global warming" with "evolution":

You see, unless you actually know at least a little bit about evolution and/or genetics, you can't recognize expertise relevant to the question at hand. I claim that's the situation of the vast majority of those who are "convinced" that evolution by natural selection is the only way of explaining adaptive design.

Crichton doesn't claim to know much about evolution, but if you do some background checking, you'll find that what really concerns him is the way science has become politicized, and not just by right wing ideologues. It is politically incorrect to question the Darwinian consensus, even if one's questions are well-founded. That's sad.

Crichton isn't an expert on the politicization of science, either. He's a best-selling author with strong opinions. That's it. No shame there. Much credit, in fact.

However, if you wanted an expert opinion on politicization, you'd get Philip Kitcher or Susan Haack, or a social scientist, or a PR executive--pretty much anyone other than Michael Crichton.

Yes, and I remember Dick Donner saying on NPR how Crichton's time-travel crap-fest proved that actual time travel was possible.

Yes, and I remember Dick Donner saying on NPR how Crichton's time-travel crap-fest proved that actual time travel was possible.

I wish it were true that "Crichton doesn't claim to know much about climatology," but I'm afraid his behavior suggests otherwise. If he really were as modest as he should be given his level of expertise, he would not be testifying in front of a Senate committee.

I don't have a problem with actors or thriller writers having opinions on whatever subjects they please. I do have a problem with government official who act as if these celebrities were scientific experts. The Senators who invited him to testify deserve all the ridicule they get.

Michael Freekin' Crighton?

You know, this reminds me of when Fox News had John Edwards (the side-show psychic) on as an "expert" during the Terry Schiavo debacle, claiming he was speaking with her living consciousness, giving sort of a proxy interview with her...

mojo sends

Gah! Inhofe is financed by oil & gas, trucking, railroads and the coal industry. Denying their effects is how he makes his money.

JR, I hadn't thought about the ice/water reflectivity difference thing, and that's informative. That the average temperature follows a gradient along longitude is pretty obvious, though. I was expressing surprise that a few degrees difference in average temperature corresponds to miles of longitude around the poles, instead of, say, hundreds of feet.

Umm. That was me.

Conservatives DO mistake fiction for fact. There was a blog piece awhile back in which someone's conservative friend kept referring to the novel "The Spike" to prove his points. I've also seen a book used in a criminology class which used a movie character as a case study of psychopathy. Conservatives want satisfying answers and aren't into self-criticism. (Some Greens are a bit that way too).

Thad tries to show that my view won't "hold up" by appeal to the principle of parity of reasoning. I accept the substitutions he suggests, and I accept the conclusion, to wit: "that's the situation of the vast majority of those who are "convinced" that evolution by natural selection is the only way of explaining adaptive design." In other words, I accept that the vast majority of people who accept an evolutionary account of biological forms aren't able to provide coherent reasons for their belief. That doesn't mean that what they believe is false, just that they don't have very good reasons for their beliefs. And yes, it's sad when well-founded questions about darwinian evolution are dismissed out of hand because they are politically incorrect.

Politically incorrect? If climate skepticism is politically incorrect, how is it that Michael Crichton gets to tesitfy before the United States Senate in a capacity traditionally reserved for those with academic or professional qualifications?

I suspect I could make at least as good a case for anthropogentic climate change as Crichton makes against it. And yet, I also suspect I'll never be invitied to testify before the Senate Committee on the Enviornment and Public Works.

Why not? Because I'd have to take a back seat to thousands of people with real qualifications, and rightly so. Besides which, the climate change perspective isn't nearly as appealing to people like Chairman Inhofe who are looking for affirmative actions hires, so to speak.

I mean, the NYT article literally says that Inhofe got Crichton in on the premise that "diversity" was needed amongst witnesses, i.e., that Chrichton's views were completely at odds with those of the scientific community at large.

Obviously, the fact that the global scientific community has consensus on X at time T doesn't establish that X is true. However, if you believe that the scientific method is generally useful for determining facts about the natural world, you are also entitled to provisionally cite the consensus of the scientific community as evidence for naturalistic claim X.

I seem to remember reading some article about Crichton years ago, how he was trying to worm his way into some positiion within the government on defense issues, on the strength of his (awful) novels. In other words, he's been trying to put himself in a position like this for some time.

Anyway, as I understand, the fallacy in the appeal to authority is that it's not really evidence. To argue properly, you should be able to cite the evidence assembled by the expert, and skip the middle man. The only reason to cite authority, per se, is to skip the step of citing actual evidence.

It's like the people at trials and hearings who testify on behalf on creationism.

Steve Shapin has pointed out that working scientists have to rely on scientific authorities in order to work at all. They can't start their experiments from scratch by independently deriving every scientific principle they work with. If a biologist talks about a complex physiological reaction, for example, he has to take for granted everything that chemists tell him about the reagents involved. So a scientific experiment is an area of doubt or inquiry nested in a large area of accepted fact.

Political correctness is more a force in academia and popular culture than in political institutions like the senate...

And where do you find Crichton making a case against anthropogenic climate change? He doesn't. His main criticim is that the computer modeling/simulation methods underlying predictions of catastrophic climate change are too shaky to provide a sound basis for important policy decisions. One needn't be a professional climatologist or modeler to appreciate the substantial inferential leaps across gaps in our knowledge that are built into climate models. All that's necessary is that one be moderately intelligent and willing to examine the arguments in question. And the fact that Crichton is subjected to ad hominem attacks rather than having his own reasoning critiqued supports his view that politics rather than science is driving the public debate.

I am a huge fan of the "scientific method" (actually a ragbag of procedures for arriving at a "best guess"). But I know only too well that practicing scientists can be less than rigorous in the application of the scientific method, that they often make unwarranted assumptions, simple errors of inference and calculation, and demonstrate the full range of human frailties. So the epistemic value of "scientific consensus" is very much attenuated in this politically freighted dispute.

But don't take my word for it. Just examine the history of the infamous hockey stick model of climate change for ample illustration.

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