On One Hand

November 10, 2005

Polemic Literature Does Not Address Reality

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 6:03 pm
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I want to offer a disclaimer that the following addresses my views on the ability of non-experts (particularly authors) to critique scientific or political theories through fiction, and DOES NOT reflect a stance on the reality of global warming or attempt to validate or invalidate Global Warming Theory as truth.

There are groups of people who, in supporting their ideologies, look at polemic works of literature like they’re scientific journals. Such phonomena occur when sound arguments are absent. We’ve all seen the works cited: Anything by Ayn Rand, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Utopia by Thomas Moore, and a new one, State of Fear by Michael Chrichton. Not only do polemic works tend to fail to accurately address the real world, but they also leave the readers’ desired interpretations so utterly implicit that the stories are neutered of literary value.

Characters in polemic stories seem to follow the same simplistic process:

1 Character is ignorant pawn lost in hyperbolized corrupt world and professes its ideology.
2 Through a catalyst, character begins to question the corrupt world and distinguish him/herself from the masses.
3 Character faces opposition/oppression from the corrupt world’s corrupt authorities directly relating to his or her opposition to corrupt worldview.
4 Character makes some sort of individualistic, triumphant proclaimation or stand against corrupt world.
5 We are all instructed or encouraged to make fictional character’s similar proclaimation – yet the plot often ends in disaster anyway (character is mournfully re-converted, character is excecuted, commits suicide or some tremendous act of destruction, and so forth.)

Yet the “facts” and ideals these stories focus on rarely reflect reality. For example, in Michael Chrichton’s State of Fear, the story’s protagonist Peter Evans explores masses of eco-terroristic pseudoscientists who purport exaggerated forms of Global Warming Theory – yet the character never confronts the real language and science behind the widely-accepted theory (a feature that is strangely resonant in many of Chrichton’s essays as well). The anti-myth Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal relates Chrichton’s characters’ evolutions into skepticism to “titillate” GWT opponents to “fictional accounts of UFO abduction skeptics converting into true believers [to] titillate UFO fans.”

Chrichton surely did a lot of research compared to the bulk of “I-am-in-a-‘think-tank’-therefore-I-know-more-about-science-than-scientists-do” pundits supporting his viewpoint, but is still utterly incorect about some of the most basic features of climatology. For example, climatologist Jeff Masters points out Chrichton’s claim that hurricanes begin as high pressure masses, when the opposite is common knowledge among meteorologists. Also according to Jeff Masters, Chrichton draws heavily on a study about the melting of high-altitude glaciers worldwide, attributing the melting to deforestation rather than climate change. Yet the authors of the study said that “using these preliminary findings to refute or even question global warming borders on the absurd.”

Chrichton mentions the urban legend that wind farms kill birds, while the actual numbers killed are negligible compared to bird deaths to other causes, and draws heavily on shamefully unrealistic descriptions of scientific rationale. No matter how much background research you do, entering a field you are unfamiliar with while carrying an ideological prejudice limits most of the insight you could gain from it.

To attempt to debunk the body of climate science reports within one novel is like trying to answer the Bible in a haiku. Yet a simple Google search reveals that Chrichton’s science fiction is, almost unbeleivably, one of the most easily found quoted sources of information on global change among economically conservative circles, indicating that it’s actually being taken seriously by some who are unfamiliar with science. I’m not sure if this means that Chrichton’s ideological proponents are so ignorant as to beleive the book accurately describes the nature of climatology, but it does imply that they follow it’s fictionalized rational process and support this house of straw’s use in political debate.

On the upside, it offers objective observers a litmust test with which to analyze the credibility of others’ arguments. If someone told me they beleive that Star Trek is real or that Atlantis existed, I probably wouldn’t accept his or her views on the potential for life on Mars. If someone thought the pro-Global Warming film The Day after Tomorrow was true, that person would not be a credible commentator on climatology. Similarly, if he or she beleives in State of Fear, everything he or she says about science should be taken with a grain of salt.

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9 Comments »

  1. You seem to denounce, quickly and viciously, anyone who dares question whatever the “consensus” of the establishment happens to be at the moment. A good dose of skepticism is always more valuable than simply regurgitating the self-interested claims of environmental alarmists, short-term thinking politicians and journalists, wind industry officials, and pseudoscientists that you’ve linked to, who have long since dropped the self-questioning that comprises real science. (Just as one example, the Crichton critics you cite points to little more than the UN pronouncement on global warming and statements by those who profit from alarmism as some sort of definitive proof that should shut off all debate.)

    Are the people (well, mostly straw men) you rudely disparage as no more valuable than UFO enthusiastics and Star Trek fans always accurate? Of course not. But your tone indicates you believe they have no place at all in the debate over important questions, and such an intolerant view would be very damaging.

    Comment by jdhenchman — November 11, 2005 @ 3:18 am | Reply

    • I do not claim that Global Warming is the God-spoken truth and incapable of falsifiability or change. It is indeed only a theory, albeit a strong and robust theory. Nor do I think that critics like Chrichton are having any negative effect on scientists or the scientific process – I wouldn’t expect those practicing sound science to be swayed by those who clearly and obviously are missing the point.

      The most pronounced opponents of Global Warming Theory are from outside Global Warming science. Science is by nature skeptical, so “a good dose of skepticism” is already inherent in the system. Advocates of Global Warming Theory are already skeptical. I encourage you to pick up a scientific journal and observe how the process of peer review works. There are available resources explaining the scientific process if you’d like to check them out, and I can assure you that they are utterly de-politicized as they do not address anything remotely related to Global Warming except its nature as a part of that process.

      The few climatologists who do not agree with the consensus on Global Warming theory often simply purport a more nuanced or less impressive version of the theory (for example, scientists finding that increasing solar intensity might play a role in current global warming trends have published studies saying that the solar increases might be responsible for “up to 40 percent” of recent warming – which is not the rhetoric you hear from non-scientist pundits taking findings grossly out of context) yet are considered dissidents when they are not. There may be a few who deny the validity of warming all together or claim that warming is completely due to solar intensity (note that these two camps do not validate each other but, rather, contradict each other because of their opposite findings), but they are not of consensus-breaking numbers.

      My problem with political opponents to Global Warming Theory is not that they oppose the theory but that they deny that findings are in fact scientific (as in, adhering to the process of discovery that all science depends on, to which Global Warming Theory is perfectly adequate) and this is simply not true. Science is a process that can evolve and renounce old findings, but is always based on new observations being made, and Global Warming opponents have not made new observations but, rather, denied existing ones. I have no problem with non-scientists critiquing science, as my own background in science is limited to roughly a third of my studies and I am still an undergrad. But if you’re going to critique science, you need to understand it first, and “think tanks,” pundits and polemic writers repeatedly display their ignorance of science and repeatedly de-contextualize or information and findings. I hope I’ve made clear that I have a problem with Michael Chrichton’s unscientific perspective rather than his ultimate position.

      But I spend a lot of time talking to scientists and reviewing science from within and I beleive it is a trustworthy process perfectly capable of internal critique. Scientists are very nuanced speakers, they are careful not to over-state findings (because they don’t want their reputation smeared by other scientists which will assuredly happen if they do) even to the extent that they often downplay findings that are surprising. Findings that have serious implications are repeated and repeated again to ensure that they are accurate – repeatability is an absolutely necessary quality of any scientific test.

      Comment by ononehand — November 11, 2005 @ 7:53 am | Reply

    • You can politicize the political repurcussions of the scientific debate all you like. For example, if science finds that a phonomenon looks a certain way and has certain consequences, you can say those consequences are not sufficent enough to cause alarm. Economic Conservatives and Libertarians can suggest that they don’t care if these warming-related changes will happen or can suggest that adapting to global changes is easier than stopping the release of greenhouse gasses. (Which are claims GWT opponents often make while simultaneously denying the phoenomena in the first place). However, you can’t deny the reality of observations that have been made from outside the process of observation because of your political views on the economy. It doesn’t relate, and simply molds public attitude against science while having no effect on the consensus within science whatsoever.

      Comment by ononehand — November 11, 2005 @ 7:53 am | Reply

    • Also, I’d characterize your blanket denunciations of scientists, journalists, and policy-makers alike as pawns of zealous environmentalists are rather vicious in themselves, though strongly reminicient of Chrichton’s fictionalized characterizations. I know for a fact that journalists do not simply print or brodcast information from press-releases, and most newspaper editors (I’ve spoken to many) actually say they over-emphasize GWT dissidents because they’re trying to “give equal attention to both sides” while one side is in actuality much larger than the other. If you are going to purport that human nature is so corrupt that the millions who are involved in all of these processes are so easily duped, I can’t imagine what defense you’d have for the “think-tanks” of admitted ideologues who make an alternate claim.

      Comment by ononehand — November 11, 2005 @ 8:05 am | Reply

    • if you call the scientists linked to in this essay ‘pseudoscientists,’ what the hell is a real scientist?

      Comment by Anonymous — November 11, 2005 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

    • the Crichton critics you cite points to little more than the UN pronouncement on global warming

      CSICP linked to:

      http://www.ametsoc.org/POLICY/climatechangeresearch_2003.html

      http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10139.html?onpi_webextra6

      Jeff Masters linked to:

      http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/005.htm

      Comment by Anonymous — November 11, 2005 @ 9:59 pm | Reply

  2. from CU computer lab ARMORY 211 (IPA?=)

    Comment by Anonymous — November 15, 2005 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

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