Saturday, November 26, 2005

STATE OF DISDAIN

When Einstein's detractors wrote a book named "One hundred authors against Einstein"- a hack attempt to denigrate his theory of relativity- the great physicist calmly retorted, "If I were wrong, then one would have been enough"

Michael Crichton seems to have tried to fill in the role of those one hundred scientists, 'against' global warming this time, by providing scholarly looking footnotes and references to his new book "State of Fear". However, clothes don't make the man, and footnotes don't make a convincing book by themselves. Throw in a decidedly obvious deviation from the author's usual style, and what you get is a volume that, although interesting and catchy in a few isolated parts, largely turns out to be an anti-climax. Unfortunately for Crichton, we, his readers who have till today largely praised his work, expect better from him, and it quickly becomes all too apparent if he does not deliver.

Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain", "Jurassic Park" and "Congo" were great thrillers and page turners, with crisp and no-nonsense accounts of events, impeccably precise character portraits, and a convincing plot. State of Fear, on the other hand, tries to throw in characters that are all too emblematic of the California they belong to (with perfect bodies and looks, and each one being the beneficiary of millions of dollars, an instant trendy and assertive vocabulary, and glitzy sports cars), and resort to cliche utterances that the reader quickly begins to recognise.

The novel basically centers on what is apparently a huge global warming hoax carried out by a band of 'eco-terrorists', supported by fanatic publicity-seeking environmental nuts, with 'stunts' involving millions of dollars, high tech equipment and weaponry, and a vast global network that would help orchestrate artificially created violent weather phenomena, with possible cost to hundreds of human lives. All this being made to coincide with a major international and highly publicised conference on global warming, that would assure maximal impact on industry and environmental policy, which would in turn lead to a loss of billions of dollars for industry. Trying to thwart this attempt are a philanthropist's lawyer, his California-blond secretary, and most importantly, an MIT Professor and his Nepali student who not surprisingly seem to know everything about everything.

Those few lines sum up the plot of the book. The objective of the heroes (and the villains) becomes clear about halfway through the book, and nothing after that really surprises us. Either the protagonists will succeed in thwarting the eco-terrorists' weather manipulation attempts, or they will fail, or they will partially succeed. And that's exactly what happens. In a few cases, they succeed; in others, partially. Everything is predictable, and after the first half of the book the novel drags. And I mean, really drags. The fate of a certain central character is bandied about so many times in the book, that this constant and seemingly portentous dilly-dallying itself gives away his fate, again halfway through. I could have given away the plot myself in detail, but then the reader would not have had the opportunity to savour some insipid and predictable writing, would he? As the end approaches, it starts to look like Crichton has found himself in a tight spot, and is deliberately trying to make extended attempts to hold our attention. Accounts of the heroes' encounter with a cannibalistic tribal community almost seemed to be aimed at saying "Are you scared yet? No?! Ok...then this will really scare you". The novel ends on an abrupt note, but by that time, I was glad that it ended, because I really wanted to get done with it.

I was surprised how much Crichton's style has suffered in this novel. The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, and Congo were books whose style may have been closer to pulp fiction, but the character development was novel and crisp, and the books progressed in an authoritarian manner that held your attention. In State of Fear, the character development is extremely cliche, and in some parts, it starts sounding like Crichton's main target audience is American high school teenagers. Attempts at forging tempting relationships between the characters are rather lame. However, like I said, the greatest flaw in the book is the predictability. Halfway through, everything becomes clear, and we know things are going to work out one way or the other. The sensationalist parts at the end sound contrived and designed to try to get back our attention which has been largely lost. The few page turning and intriguing passages in the book concern Crichton's narration of events related to the science of global warming (or the opposition thereto) and a chapter long monologue by a researcher about what we are essentially familiar with as Orwellian thought control, or the 'manufacture of consent' as enumerated by Noam Chomsky, aimed towards convincing the populace that global warming is not taking place.

And it is exactly these parts that made State of Fear a controversial novel. At a time when many Governments in the Western world are being seen as having the worst track record in climate and environmental policy, the last thing we need is a Crichton who writes even a novel that depicts environmentalists (or at least many of them) as fanatic publicity seeking stuntmen having nothing better to do with their time and lives. What's wrong with all the footnotes that Crichton makes characters repeatedly refer to as a case against global warming? On first glance, we are compelled to note that many of the footnotes are from the annals of the most distinguished journals in the world, including Nature and Science. However, not even 'distinguished' articles are always free of bias. As someone said, the problem with many scientists is that they find what they are trying to find. Crichton notes hundreds of references, and plugs in dozens of charts and graphs in his book that seem to point to one fact- global warming is a non-fact. According to him, there is no proof to ascertain that there is a consistent pattern of global warming that is commensurate with increasing levels of CO2. One of the major arguments Crichton notes is the drop of mean temperature during the middle of the century, when CO2 levels were still rising. However, the most prominent red herring that Crichton throws in here is the correctly noted and simple fact, that climate change, let alone control, is still a very complex issue, and no definitive answers can be given that correlate factors in a causal relationship. And here, as noted on this website for example ('Michael Crichton's State of Confusion'), Crichton seems to contradict himself; the lack of correlation between rising CO2 and temperature, is exactly as many scientists believe, because the climate was complex, and there were many other factors that actually drove down the temperature even as CO2 levels rose. However, Crichton seems to be promoting the notion that we don't know anything at all. That is certainly not true. Correlation between a general rise in temperature, ice melting, sea level rising, and greenhouse gas emissions has been clearly noted in the annals of hundreds of journals. Agreed, whatever deficiencies there are, are caused because climate prediction and even understanding is a complicated business. But the other main reason is that many of these methods of measurement have their own errors. At the same time, that is what statistics is for; one can measure averages, deviations, and try to quantify the errors. Exact figures may be incorrect, but this fact does not suddenly preempt the entire phenomenon. Also, Crichton points to a number of local cases, where temperature dropped even though CO2 increased. Now, one can also point to an equal number of cases, where temperature rose. However, in that case, researchers have been careful to subtract factors like the so called 'urban heat effect' that could effect erroneous increases in the temperature. One sparrow does not make a bird, and Crichton seems to think that a dozen of them do, when he also neglects many cases where another two dozen of them won't. These days, it seems to be fashionable to immediately take a contrarian stand whenever many people start ascribing to a particular point of view. But this fact by itself does not make the contrarian stand true, although unambiguous hard facts do.
Crichton seems to take pleasure in writing a novel in which iconoclasts challenge prevailing wisdom, trying to bring about a Copernicus like revolution. Fortunately, what Copernicus said or did not say did not change the heliocentric nature of our solar system. Unfortunately, sensibility about global warming related issues is already dictating public policy to an undue extent, and 'politicizing science', a fact that Crichton himself eloquently warns against at the end of the book, and this debate actually affects the face of our planet. At the end, it is facts which prevail. On the other hand, when there is a dearth of facts, is it not better to err on the safer side? At the least, if we agree (and Crichton does) that climate is a complicated issue, does it make sense to make it even more complicated to understand by introducing man made elements such as greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere?

I agree that there are certain environmentalists who are too vocal in their opinions, sometimes without concrete evidence. But they mean well, and after all, all of us are going to live on the same planet in the future. We have to take care of it, global warming or not. That there is a general correlation between greenhouse gases and rise in temperature, quite apart from the details and frills, has been consistently demonstrated. By recounting a tale that presents lop-sided and biased evidence, Crichton is certainly not helping the cause. In the end, there is a remarkable section that Crichton has penned (probably better written than the whole book) in which, whether he wants to or not, he ends up comparing global warming to the early twentieth century obsession with eugenics, a moral travesty that is apparently being committed by members of the highest levels of industry, government, and academia. Interestingly, Crichton thinks that it's the most distinguished researchers and the most elite universities who are the greatest perpetrators of the global warming hoax. This made me laugh. In science, more than elsewhere, hoaxes are usually and quickly exposed. The iron hand of experiment and objective evidence makes certain that selfish researchers usually do not succeed in biasing scientific results and keeping them under wraps for long. So it is a kind of joke if universities are really the greatest hoax promoters. Scientists are safe as such. The ones who need to take care and watch out, and not be given to personal interests and biased views, are politicians...politicians, and writers like Michael Crichton, that fine and intelligent man whose work I have always enjoyed until now.

10 Comments:

Blogger Kunal said...

It may be that I didn't read this correctly, but don't you think you're pillorying Crichton (spelled with a "ch", btw) for the same sins you forgive global warming proponents? If you think "they mean well" is sufficient justification, do you believe that Crichton does not mean well, and like a cliched Captain Planet, actually wants to destroy the planet?

10:47 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Oops! Thanks for the reminder about the "ch". Galti se mistake ho gaya. Let me change that :)

Well, a couple of things. Firstly, if you compare the two 'sins', that of understating global warming and that of exaggerating it, I don't personally believe that they are equivalent.The first one is a much greater sin, because it can lead to irreversible damages. On the other hand, even those developed nations who sometimes support global warming don't do this with an honest motive, their main aim being to tell developing countries, 'We did it, now you don't do it'.
Secondly, I didn't imply that Crichton does not mean well. Maybe he does. But he is not helping the cause for a serious venture that would, at the least, reduce a great deal of strain on our planet's resources. Also, he tries to portray many scientists as fanatic cranks, which I don't think is true. There may be activists who are a little too eager to make their case based on incomplete data, but most scientists usually acknowledge the inadequacy of their methods. But Crichton does not seem to acknowledge this fact himself. And most importantly, who is it that really wields power? These environmental fanatics hardly wield as much power in managing public policy as do the powerful corporations and their political supporters, who would always go the extra step so that more people travel in luxurious SUVs that pollute. I think that their impact is instant and pernicious compared to the eco-nuts; that is why I talked about this being a case where it is better to err on the safer side. However, I appreciate that dissenting points always should be heard: on the other hand, it is a little bit chastening to see that laymen will take popular writers like Crichton at face value, while not taking the effort to read the opinions of serious scientists who make a case for global warming.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

I read half of 'State of Fear' and then gave it up in sheer boredom.
Crichton can write much, much better than this; 'The Great Train Robbery' and 'Congo' are good examples.

Furthermore, I agree that the author has presented a refreshingly different point of view and may mean well; but he is wrong nevertheless and paints a totally crackpot scenario :)
Also, to reiterate Asutosh's point, much more harm will be done by underestimating the effects of global warming.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

HI Ashu,

I see that you are an andaz apna apna fan too. I am a huge fan of the movie myself. I agree with you that writers like Crichton undermine the efforts of serious scientists to create an awareness regarding global warming which is one of the most serious issues facing the world. It is unfortunate that people as smart as Crichton take a contrarian view just for the sake of being a rebel, rebels without a case, so to speak.

3:17 PM  
Blogger thedq said...

Are you in emory?

3:30 PM  
Blogger Kunal said...

Vivek, Ashutosh: What both of you say makes perfect sense, assuming global warming is a proven fact. Unfortunately, its not, its a theory. A thery that explains many things very well, certainly, but its still a theory.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Actually, global warming is is a proven fact. The disagreement is really about the contribution of human activities to the rise in temperature, and there, a broad correlation has been shown. Crichton downplays not only the proven veracity of this fact, but the efforts of many scientists who have shows these correlations. And he does it in a blatantly loud manner, that seems more contrived to shock than inform. Well, anyway, it's a novel. So...

7:24 AM  
Blogger Kunal said...

Ok, I'll take your word that global warming is a proven fact, but what about the greenhouse effect? Is that a proven fact?

And btw, do you notice no one refers to global warming anymore. It's "climate change" now...

10:56 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Take a look at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4471926.stm for example. One of the statements is:

There is hardly a single scientifically qualified climate specialist on the face of the planet who believes the Earth's surface is not warming

And yes, 'climate change' is another subtle euphemism which can be used to cajole and condemn in turns.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

And yes, there is some debate about the greenhouse effect, but still not enough I think for it to be downright controversial.

5:47 AM  

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