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« NBC's "The Apprentice": down to the final two | Main | Does death for Scott Peterson cheapen the death penalty? »

December 11, 2004



I haven't read the book, but Crighton usually does considerable research. The disturbing thing for me is that the anti-intellectual ground have quickly latched on to the hype as an argument against science. Of course, the science is too new to draw a definitive conclusion. Until we set off the A bomb, Einstein theories were pretty much just that, theories. Unfortunately if the global warming theorist are right, we have a problem and ought to begin to act now. Its sort of like Saddam and the WMD, did anybody at that time want to wait for definitive proof. Well of course they did, and now they are crowing... Ok, the Kyoto treaty is not the answer, but sticking our heads in the sand is not the answer either. In any case, there are good reasons to restrict harmful emissions even if global warming turns out to be nothing more than a shibboleth. Most of the hot air we generate is not just hot air. That being so, we must recognize the importance of maintaining the earth at an acceptable level of non toxicity for future generations. So lets not fight over the truth of what is essentially a side issue, we need to start cleaning up our world our earthen home now. Its never too early to start.


Two things about the book based on reviews and my skimming of it at the bookstore yesterday.

1. Crichton's real hobby horse isn't "global warming" but "politicized science." That's a horse of a different color.

2. His conclusion is about the use of fear to manipulate people, which sounds rather Michael Moore-ish to me, though he's saying fear of a different thing than Moore is as a motivating factor.


I just bought State of Fear, but probably won't get to it for a little bit. However, there are at least a couple of things that might be said about global warming.

First, we need to hedge the risk that climate change, whether or not caused by human activity, could devestate parts of the world inhabited by lots of people. If the North Atlantic salt conveyor stops because of a flood of fresh water off of the Greenland ice shelf, that will be very bad news for Europe. It will hardly matter if the climate change is the result of more carbon in the atmosphere or just a natural terrestrial cycle. So we should all agree that it makes sense to spend more money design crops that can grow in relatively extreme conditions, contingency plans for moving populations hit by rising sea levels, the spread of infectious diseases triggered by changes in climate, and so forth.

Second, there are a lot of fairly inexpensive things that might be done to reduce carbon emissions. For starters, we could begin to tax carbon-based fuels, slowly increasing the tax on a planned schedule until they become too expensive for every day use. If the scheduled increases in carbon taxes were spread over, say, 25 years, you could make a significant amount of progress without destroying the economy of the industrial world. We can also accelerate the planting of trees and investigate the capture of carbon in underground sinks. Would we achieve the reductions that the activists are calling for? No. But we might buy some more time.

The problem, of course, is that many of the activists want to change our society. They hate cars, capitalism, lots of power, lots of waste. If somebody invented a power source that did away with greenhouse emissions as a risk, many of these activists would be tremendously disappointed. They would have to find another reason to justify legislating economic growth and the consumer society into oblivion.

Tung Yin

Matt, you are right about Crichton's desire to attack politicized science. However, I thought that aspect of the book was far weaker than the refutation of global warming.

Ron and Jack, you raise some good points about how global warming, whether man-made or natural, could pose problems for all of us. But according to the sources Crichton cites, there's little to no evidence that those problems are occurring.

Ron also suggests that whether global warming is established as science, we might as well act now because the cost of not acting is too high. But as Crichton points out, the cost of acting is high too. Here's a somewhat outlandish example, but one that I think is fair --

There is an astronomically small but non-zero chance that the Earth will be hit by an asteroid of sufficient size to wipe out most life as we know it. (Think "Armageddon.") We're not sure if we can predict it (just as we're not sure about global warming), but we can't afford not to prepare. We should invest in technology and build some kind of nuclear weapon platform in outer space so that if we detect one of these killer asteroids, we can nuke it in sufficient time to deflect its trajectory.

Of course, the cost to do this may be several trillion dollars. Should we undertake to spend that much money on something that's so unlikely to happen? I wouldn't think so.

Now, to be fair, my lay guess is that global warming is much much more likely to be accurate than the chance of a killer asteroid. But that doesn't mean that global warming is likely to occur.

That said, I think the suggestions that Jack makes are reasonable ones.


It seems ridiculous that a fiction writer is able to garner even the amount of speculation I see in this blog. All the arguments against the effects of global warming are simply theories made up to justify our unwillingness to change. Go ahead, question the shocking idea that human activities might change the atmosphere...if you're not around to find out if global warming really exists, I'm sure your son will be.

Tung Yin

All the arguments against the effects of global warming are simply theories made up to justify our unwillingness to change. Go ahead, question the shocking idea that human activities might change the atmosphere.

As I've said, it doesn't seem to me to be an unreasonable theory. However -- and again, let me emphasize that global warming is far from my area of expertise, and I haven't looked at Crichton's sources to see if he's citing them accurately -- if Crichton is correct in the actual scientific studies he's cited, the problem with global warming as a theory is that it hasn't made predictions that have been validated. So I think it's a bit unreasonable for you to attack those studies as "theories" -- they are attempts to validate what global warming predicts. That's not to say that the global warming theory is wrong; after all, the studies may be themselves inaccurate. But you should confront the studies, not dismiss them.


For nitpicking's sake: Einstein's theories were pretty well-established before we set off the A-bomb; and on the other hand, setting off the A-bomb didn't definitively prove anything.

You could test E=mc^2 without setting off an atomic bomb, merely by watching radioactive decay and measuring relative masses. Relativity can be proven by measuring the path of light in a gravitational field, and by determining that minor errors in a strictly gravitational theory can be dealt with other ways. The data for both these theories already existed. In fact, the "proof" of Einstein's theory was data that already existed.

Likewise, we still have no "conclusive" proof that Einstein's theories are in fact correct; we only know that they appear to be more correct than any of the alternatives we've considered. We have not, by definition, rejected any of the alternatives we have not considered.

Now, as applied: there is no way, ever, to "validate" human-caused global warming. If the earth warms and there's more carbon dioxide, we don't know whether it's because it's the earth has gotten warmer, which increases aerobic bacteria, producing carbon dioxide; or if it's because carbon dioxide emissions have increased global temperature. We do know, as a matter of historical fact, (and by "know" and "fact" I mean that inasmuch as our theories of testing ice core data are correct, we appear to have established with great likelihood) that carbon dioxide measurements are linked with global mean temperature.

Here in reality, we don't have a control group. We've only got one world; we can't actually perform Einstein-like validations of our theories, which would require us to take the world at 1500, duplicate it, prevent emissions of greenhouse gases on one earth, and see what happens to the temperature.

That being said, I inherently distrust every single climate model. First of all, they're too reductionist: they cannot possibly include all the variables that are important. Second, they can't possibly model even the important interactions that we know about except on very superficial levels: real questions, like what effect do Nitrogen oxides really have are presently unanswerable because (a) our equipment isn't good enough to measure the actual amounts and (b) our computers can't perform quantum calculations estimating the answer, because it would take longer than the lifetime of the universe to calculate the answer.

So here's the problem: in the global warming world, there are too many theories that need to be tested, and not enough worlds on which to test them. Instead, we have to do what normal people do: Bayesian probability analysis, to determine, as best we can, how likely our results may be.

Global warming models -- every single one of 'em -- can't even begin to answer that question.

Now I must go finish my 24 hour take-home. Thank you very much for tripping my science alarms and distracting me. Pbbthpt to you all.


Heidi makes some good points. Tung, I am not convinced that we should be completely deterred by the cost. The Asteroid analogy as you point out is flawed. The cost of preventing global warming may not be great as we think. It will perhaps fall heavily on certain industries and economies which currently treat the air as a free good. That is painful. Especially to those immediately affected. It is difficult for them to give up on the concept of free good. The best argument for them to do so, is for them to consider the effect on their future progeny. Here in America we perhaps need to consider not driving HumVees, etc., there are steps that could be taken that are not costly.

e m butler

Heidi certainly nailed it...There are no real models of the earth to run experiments on and anyone who tells you they "know" humans are responsible/not respon. is dealing in matters of belief(faith).. not science.


Looking at things another way, global warming isn't even the end all we make it out to be. If we go along with long term climate theories we are technically just coming out of what is known as "the little Ice Age." Another point may be that theoretically Cretacous temperatures were about 10 degrees Centigrade higher on average than current temperatures on Earth. Earth, as a planet, will go on pretty much no matter what we do. I think we need to accept that things are changing and decide how we're going to deal with things in a future where the temperature is higher (Since it is rising, no matter what you attribute the cause to) and certain areas that are now fertile are less so and vice versa.

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