Warming, the Politicization of Science, and Michael Crichton's
"State of Fear"*
by David Deming*
*College of Geosciences, University of Oklahoma
Norman, OK 73019
*Preprint, to be published in the June, 2005, issue of the
Journal of Scientific Exploration, v.19, no.2 http://www.scientificexploration.org/jse.php
On December 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the coast of Northern Sumatra. The massive temblor, the largest in 40 years, spawned tsunamis that killed more than 150,000 people. The next day, a colleague at a think tank emailed me to ask if I had any opinions about the new Michael Crichton book, State of Fear.
Although State of Fear is a fictional thriller about ecoterrorism, its real thesis is the politicization of science, in particular climate change and global warming. Because global warming is a highly-charged political subject, Crichton's book has received a lot of attention in the press, including a review by Washington Post columnist George Will (Will, 2004). My colleague closed his email with a little joke:
P.S. - I'm also anxious to see if anyone blames this weekend's tsunami in Indonesia on global warming.
We didn't have long to wait. A few hours later, the CBS evening news broadcast did just that. Citing unnamed "climate experts", they put up a graphic that had only the words "global warming" and "tsunamis". News anchor Dan Rather then stated:
Climate experts warned today that tsunamis could become more common around the world and more dangerous. They cite a number of factors, including a creeping rise in sea levels believed to come from global warming and growing populations along coastal areas.
A Russian politician was less circumspect. The Deputy Chairman of the Russian Duma (parliament), Artur Chilingarov, told the Russian news agency Ria Novosti:
The reason for the earthquake and a gigantic tsunami which killed several tens of thousands of people in South and Southeast Asia was probably a global climate change...scientists have registered lately a change of the average temperature, which is now growing at fantastic rates. These seemingly insignificant temperature changes allow the atmosphere and oceans to accumulate additional energy...(Anonymous, 2004a).
I have had my own experiences with the politicization of climate science. In 1995, I had a short paper published in the prestigious journal Science (Deming, 1995). I reviewed how borehole temperature data recorded a warming of about one degree Celsius in North America over the last 100 to 150 years. I closed the manuscript with what seemed to me to be a remarkably innocuous and uncontroversial statement:
A cause and effect relationship between anthropogenic activities and climatic warming cannot be demonstrated unambiguously at the present time (Deming, 1995, p. 1577).
The week the article appeared, I came into my office one morning to find a voicemail message from a reporter for National Public Radio. He wanted to interview me concerning my article in Science. Visions of glory danced in front of my eyes. I was going to be on national radio. Surely, it was only a matter of time before I would be a regular guest on the McNeil-Lehrer news hour on PBS. Excited, I called the reporter back. But all of my fantasies were immediately dispelled. The reporter focused in on the last sentence in the Science paper. He asked me, did I really mean to say that? Did I really intend to imply that the warming in North America may have been due to natural variability? Without hesitation, I said "yes". He replied, "Well then, I guess we have no story. That's not what people are interested in. People are only interested if the warming is due to human activities. Goodbye." And he hung up on me. It was my first realization that the media intentionally filter the information the public receives.
A year later, I received a telephone call from an author working on an article for International Wildlife, a magazine published by the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental advocacy group We discussed some of my work, and talked about the implication of borehole temperature measurements for global warming. Subsequently, the Editor of International Wildlife sent me a draft article for review. I was horrified. My work and comments had been taken out of context and used in such a way as to exaggerate the magnitude of climate change. I made some pointed comments, and the article was toned down a little. I later learned that the author of the International Wildlife article was not a scientist, but a lawyer. I had been naive. I had assumed that everyone was like me--they were interested in the truth. But a lawyer's job isn't to discover truth, it's to win an argument. Neither is an advocacy organization interested in truth--they are committed to advocating a certain position regardless of the facts.
With the publication of the article in Science, I gained significant credibility in the community of scientists working on climate change. They thought I was one of them, someone who would pervert science in the service of social and political causes. So one of them let his guard down. A major person working in the area of climate change and global warming sent me an astonishing email that said "We have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period."
The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was a time of unusually warm weather that began
around 1000 AD and persisted until a cold period known as the "Little Ice
Age" took hold in the 14th and 15th centuries. Warmer climate brought a
remarkable flowering of prosperity, knowledge, and art to Europe. As the temperature
increased, so did agricultural yields. Marshes and swamps dried up, removing
the breeding grounds of mosquitoes that spread malaria. Former wetlands were
converted to productive farmland. Infant mortality fell, and the population
grew. From 1100 to 1300 AD, the population of Europe increased from about 40
to 60 million (Moore, 1995). The surest sign of the warming climate in Europe
was the settlement of Greenland by Vikings from Iceland. The Greenland settlements
reached a height of prosperity in the 12th and 13th centuries when 3,000 colonists
occupied 280 farms. The settlements came under duress in the late 14th century
due to the onset of Little Ice Age cooling; they finally perished in the 15th
century. The existence of the MWP was recognized in the climate textbooks for
decades. But now it was a major embarrassment to those maintaining that the
20th century warming was truly anomalous. It had to be "gotten rid of".
During the early 1990s, an important reference book for those working in the area of climate change was Climate Change: the IPCC Scientific Assessment (Houghton et al., 1990). The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was the major international organization concerned with the dangers of global warming. And yet a skeptic could open the IPCC's own reference text and see that 20th century warming was dwarfed by the MWP (Houghton et al., 1990, p. 202). When the 20th century warming was placed into the context of a thousand years of history it appeared to be virtually insignificant. If people were going to be convinced of the danger of global warming, the MWP clearly needed to be erased from history.
In 1998, Michael Mann, a climate researcher at the University of Massachusetts,
published a paper in Nature where he and his colleagues claimed that temperatures
in the late 20th century were warmer than any time since the year 1400. A year
later, the same authors extended their analysis back to the year 1000 (Mann
et al., 1999). In the Mann et al. (1999) reconstruction of temperature, the
MWP simply vanished. The analyses by Mann et al. (1998, 1999) resulted in graphs
of mean global temperature over the last 1000 years that had the shapes of hockey
sticks. The graphs showed that mean global temperatures were uniformly monotonic
over the last millennium, abruptly rising in the 20th century.
Mann et al. (1999, p. 759) concluded that "the latter 20th century is
anomalous in the context of at least the past millennium". This conclusion
was greeted like the triumphal return of Jesus Christ. Decades of work was overturned
by one journal article. The MWP had been reinterpreted out of existence.
Within a few days, the research by Mann and his colleagues passed from analysis to fact. On March 3, 1999, the University of Massachusetts issued a press release with the headline "1998 Was Warmest Year of Millennium..." On March 22, 1999, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution published an editorial titled "The Facts About Global Warming" wherein they stated:
The 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years...Clearly something is happening to Earth's climate, and according to the scientific consensus, that "something" probably has two arms, two legs and two or three cars in every garage (Anonymous, 1999).
Four years later, Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas (2003) reviewed more than
200 previous studies and concluded that the evidence for the existence and global
extent of both the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age was well established.
It was hardly a controversial result, yet the Soon and Baliunas (2003) paper
was greeted by a firestorm of controversy. Three editors of the academic journal
in which the study had been published resigned in protest (Regalado, 2003, p.
Writing in the June 24, 2003, internet version of Scientific American, reporter David Appell explained Soon and Baliunas' sin.
...the consensus view among paleoclimatologists is that the Medieval Warming Period was a regional phenomenon, that the worldwide nature of the Little Ice Age is open to question and that the late 20th century saw the most extreme global average temperatures.
Soon and Baliunas had committed the cardinal sin of violating the new consensus. They were not the first scientists to get in trouble for violating consensus. In the 17th century, an irascible Italian mathematician made people even angrier. When asked if he didn't have to honor his enemies' objections, he explained:
The conclusions of Natural Science are true and necessary, and the judgment of men has nothing to do with them (Galilei, 1953, p. 63).
When he was in a less temperate mood (his normal state), Galileo made a more pointed criticism of human consensus.
The crowd of fools who know nothing is infinite (Drake, 1957, p. 239).
A direct attack on Mann et al. (1999) appeared later in 2003. Two Canadian scientists, Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, tried to replicate the results of Mann et al. (1998), but were unable to do so. In a paper published in Energy & Environment, they claimed:
The data set of [Mann et al., 1998]...contains collation errors, unjustifiable truncation or extrapolation of source data obsolete data, geographical location errors, incorrect calculation of principal components, and other quality control defects (McIntyre and McKitrick, 2003, p. 751).
McIntyre and McKitrick also found that Mann et al.'s (1998) results could not be supported by the data.
An even more serious criThe particular "hockey stick" shape derived in the [Mann et al., 1998] proxy reconstruction..is primarily an artifact of poor data handling, obsolete data and incorrect calculation of principal components (McIntyre and McKitrick 2003, p. 751).
A critique of the Mann et al. (1998, 1999) climate reconstructions appeared in Science in October, 2004. von Storch et al. (2004) pointed out that the methodology used by Mann et al. (1998, 1999) was flawed. Their reconstruction technique tended to dampen out, and thus obliterate, past temperature changes. Although the analysis by von Storch et al. (2004) published in Science was damning, the language was diplomatic.
The centennial variability of the Northern Hemisphere temperature is underestimated by the regression-based methods applied here, suggesting that past variations may have been at least a factor of 2 larger than indicated by empirical reconstructions (von Storch et al., 2004, p. 679).
In an interview, the lead author, Hans von Storch, was less tactful. In the October 4, 2004, issue of the German magazine Der Spiegel, he referred to the "hockey stick" graphs of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) as "quatsch." The German word quatsch translates into English as rubbish, hogwash, balderdash, bilge, bunk, hooey, malarkey, or nonsense (Anonymous, 2004b).
As the year 2005 began, the Mann et al. affair began to take on an eerie resemblance to the case of Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles. Bellesiles was the author of an award-winning book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000). The revolutionary thesis of Arming America was that guns had been uncommon in colonial America. The book won Columbia University's prestigious Bancroft Prize for an original contribution to American history. Bellesiles' findings were immediately trumpeted as a revelation with profound implications for the political debate about gun rights in the United States. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Northwestern University history professor Gary Wills claimed:
There is nothing left to vindicate the myth that individually owned guns were a source of American freedom and greatness (Wills, 1999, p. 31).
Critics of Bellesiles' thesis seemed to be confined to a community of ignorant
zealots and gun fanatics who circulated ad hominem attacks on the internet.
Writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 18, 2001, Bellesiles
claimed that he had become the victim of a hate campaign waged over the world
wide web (Bellesiles, 2001).
The first intimation in the mainstream press that there might be anything wrong
with Bellesiles' scholarship occurred on October 3, 2001. The Boston Globe
reported that Emory University had asked Bellesiles to write a detailed defense
of his work. Among the charges against Bellesiles was that he claimed to have
relied upon San Francisco probate records that had been destroyed in the 1906
fire (Mehegan, 2001). A year later, it was all over. An investigative panel
assembled by Emory concluded that Bellesiles "was guilty of both substandard
research methodology and of willfully misrepresenting specific evidence"
(de la Merced, 2002). Bellesiles resigned, but without admitting any culpability.
In an effort to save face by rewriting history, Columbia University retroactively
rescinded Bellesiles' Bancroft Prize (Anonymous, 2002).
Personally, I had doubts about the Mann et al. (1999) claims from the beginning.
Only a few years earlier, the existence of a world-wide MWP had been documented
by an important paleoclimate study, Huang et al.'s (1997) analysis of borehole
temperature data. As Lachenbruch and Marshall (1986, p. 696) pointed out many
years ago, borehole temperatures are the most robust paleoclimate indicator
we have because they are not a proxy, but a direct thermophysical record of
temperature changes occurring at the surface.
The Huang et al. (1997) study was originally submitted to Nature. I
was one of the reviewers of the manuscript. I told the Nature editors
that the article would surely be one of the most important papers they published
that year. But it never appeared in print. Nature asked the authors to
revise the paper twice and then, after a long delay, ended up rejecting it.
While writing this essay, I learned that McIntyre and McKitrick's manuscript
had received similar treatment at Nature. Apparently, it is not enough
for the editors at Nature to simply reject an article that is politically
incorrect, they have to delay its inevitable publication in another journal
by tying it up in the review process for several months.
Not only does the analysis by Huang et al. (1997) show a well-developed MWP,
it also reveals that mean surface global temperature over most of the last 10,000
years was significantly warmer than the late 20th-century value. But this paper
received virtually no attention in the press. After all, it wasn't "what
people are interested in."
Two years ago, Michael Crichton delivered a lecture at Caltech titled "Aliens
Cause Global Warming." The talk was transcribed onto Crichton's website
, and subsequently has been widely circulated on the internet. Aliens Cause
Global Warming is about the politicization of American science over the last
forty years, starting with the search for extraterrestrial life, and ending
with global warming.
How many people remember the peril of nuclear winter? Crichton shows how the
entire concept was "from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated
media campaign" conducted for political ends. A Washington DC public-relations
firm was paid $80,000. to publicize the research. The first appearance of the
work in the peer-reviewed, scientific literature, was in the December 23, 1983,
issue of Science (Turco et al., 1983). But the dangers of nuclear winter had
been heralded nearly two months earlier by Carl Sagan in the October 30, 1983,
issue of Parade magazine, a supplement to Sunday newspapers (Seitz, 1986).
By 1986, it was apparent that the conclusions of Turco et al. (1983) were suspect,
and that the entire field of research was highly politicized. Writing in the
January 23, 1986, issue of Nature, K. A. Emanuel (1986, p. 259) noted
that "nuclear winter research...has become notorious for its lack of scientific
In State of Fear, Michael Crichton takes the thesis he first espoused in Aliens
Cause Global Warming and expands it through the vehicle of a fictional thriller.
Fiction can be used very effectively to promulgate social and political causes.
Classic examples include Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and
Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957).
State of Fear follows the adventures of lawyer Peter Evans as he is dragged
into a conflict between eco-terrorists and counter-terrorism agents. The goal
of the terrorists is to use advanced technology to induce natural disasters
that can be blamed on global warming. The chief villains are the administrators
of the fictional National Environmental Resource Fund, cynical men whose only
goal is to manipulate the press so as to increase the funding for their organization.
No one is surprised that it all comes down to money.
The novel reads like the screenplay for a Hollywood thriller. Attorney Evans
narrowly escapes freezing to death after falling into an ice crevasse in Antarctica.
Assassinations are not done with routine methods such as guns or garrotes. People
are killed by injecting them with the venom of a poisonous octopus. In one memorable
scene, an attractive young woman can only escape electrocution by stripping
off her clothes. An essential component of the James Bond genre is high technology.
In State of Fear, the reader is introduced to hypersonic cavitation technology
and weather modification by changing "the electric potentials of the infra-cumulus
strata" (Crichton, 2004, p. 313).
Crichton skillfully and seamlessly intertwines the plot with information on
global warming. In one chapter, attorney Peter Evans is forced to examine the
evidence for global warming in the context of a hypothetical lawsuit. All uncertainties,
failed predictions, and questions concerning the reliability of the data are
brought into focus.
A unique aspect of State of Fear is Crichton's repeated citation of the scientific literature that contradicts the "consensus" on the dangers of global warming. Among the claims found in State of Fear:
· carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth (p. 421)
· since 1980, the Sahara Desert has been shrinking, not expanding (p. 421)
· the rate of emergence of new diseases has not changed since 1960 (p. 421)
· there are no accurate estimates for the rate of species extinction (p. 422)
· extreme weather, including hurricanes, has not become more frequent (p. 426)
· a renewable-energy technology that can replace the use of fossil fuels does not exist (p. 479)
· Antarctica is getting colder, and the thickness of the ice is increasing (p. 193)
· the urban heat-island effect on the temperature record has been underestimated (p. 384)
Perhaps the most interesting character in State of Fear is professor Norman Hoffman. Professor Hoffman studies what he calls the "ecology of thought." In a memorable soliloquy, Hoffman muses how the most prosperous and safe civilization in human history has become obsessed with doomsday visions and exists in a "state of fear."
Has it ever occurred to you how astonishing the culture of Western society really is? Industrialized nations provide their citizens with unprecedented safety, health, and comfort. Average life spans increased fifty percent in the last century. Yet modern people live in abject fear. They are afraid of strangers, disease, of crime, of the environment. They are afraid of the homes they live in, the food they eat, the technology that surrounds them. They are in a particular panic over things they can't even see--germs, chemicals, additives, pollutants. They are timid, nervous, fretful, and depressed. And even more amazingly, they are convinced that the environment of the entire planet is being destroyed around them. Remarkable! Like the belief in witchcraft, it's an extraordinary delusion--a global fantasy worthy of the Middle Ages. Everything is going to hell, and we must all live in fear. Amazing (Crichton, 2004, p. 455).
Foremost among the institutions that promote the state of fear are American universities. The modern State of Fear could never exist without universities feeding it. There is a peculiar neo-Stalinist mode of thought that is required to support all this, and it can only thrive in a restrictive setting, behind closed doors, without due process. In our society, only universities have created that--so far. The notion that these institutions are liberal is a cruel joke. They are fascist to the core...(Crichton, 2004, p. 459).
As the twenty-first century dawns in America, our institutions of higher education appear to be reverting to their Medieval ancestors. Intolerant and dogmatic, European universities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were dedicated to maintaining the intellectual consensus. After attending most of the European colleges of his day, Paracelsus (1493-1541) characterized his university education by stating:
I was brought up in the garden where the trees are mutilated (Baas, 1889, p. 377).
And what does Crichton himself think? In an appendix titled "Author's Message", he lays out his own views in a series of short statements that make it clear he identifies primarily with the Cornucopian School.
I think for anyone to believe in impending resource scarcity, after two hundred years of such false alarms, is kind of weird. I don't know whether such a belief today is best ascribed to ignorance of history, sclerotic dogmatism, unhealthy love of Malthus, or simply pigheadedness, but it is evidently a hardy perennial in human calculation (Crichton, 2004, p. 570).
Michael Crichton's State of Fear is an exciting and well-written fictional
thriller. But the book is really about how we do science. For ages, science
in Western Civilization has struggled to free itself from restrictions imposed
by theology (White, 1903). That battle seems to have been pretty well won. But
the fight for freedom of thought seems to be never-ending. The new threat comes
from the politicization of science.
Crichton closes State of Fear with a quote from Alston Chase about the dangers of politicizing science (2004, p. 580). But I have a better quote from Phillip Johnson:
Whenever science is enlisted in some other cause--religious, political, or racialist--the result is always that the scientists themselves become fanatics (Johnson, 1991, p. 154)
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4. Michael Mann and his coworkers have tried to explain the differences between their results and analysis of borehole temperatures by claiming that changes in ground surface temperatures do not necessarily track changes in air temperature (Mann, M. E., and Schmidt, G., 2002, Geophysical Research Letters, v. 30, no. 12, p. 1607). But their claims were met with robust criticisms by Chapman et al. (2004, Geophysical Research Letters, v. 31, doi: 10.1029/2003GLo19054).