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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

State of Fear

Global Environmental Catastrophe Is Not Inevitable

State of Fear is a didactic novel, teaching while telling a story. Author Michael Crichton is attempting here to do more than just to make a general statement to the reader, such as Upton Sinclair did in The Jungle (“capitalism is bad”) or Ayn Rand did in Atlas Shrugged (“capitalism is vital”). He is attempting to enlighten the reader in great detail about the subject of global environmental change. Specifically, Crichton wants to disabuse people of the carefully cultivated notion that we face inevitable global environmental catastrophe unless we immediately adopt a program of radical economic contraction to stop the emission of “greenhouse gases.”

Equally important, Crichton wants to tear away the curtain of sanctimoniousness that hides the self-serving nature of the main “green” organizations. Their disregard for science and truth already imposes costs on people, with the heaviest costs falling on the poorest people. If the United States were ever so foolish as to embrace the “green” agenda in full, the result would be economic disaster of monumental proportions. Crichton accurately sees the radical greens as self-interested groups whose officers irresponsibly push fear and pseudoscience to drum up financial support.

When you put such an ambitious product in the hands of a bestselling novelist, you have the makings of a book with strong impact. That’s just what Michael Crichton delivers.

It’s important to bear in mind that while Crichton has made his career writing fast-paced “technothriller” novels, he has a strong scientific background that includes a medical degree from Harvard. Clearly, he has not lost the ability to think analytically about scientific claims. The greens’ incessant use of alarmist rhetoric, disinformation, and junk science has caused many scientists to speak up in protest. Crichton wants the general reading reading public to understand what scientists do and that environmentalists often play fast and loose with the scientific method.

The action in the novel centers around a fictitious (but very realistic) environmental organization called the National Environmental Resource Fund (NERF) and its unpleasant, maniacal leader Nick Drake. NERF has been spending huge sums of money to covertly acquire some esoteric technology, a fact that comes to the attention of John Kenner, a cross between an MIT professor and a swashbuckling adventurer. Kenner gradually figures out what Drake is up to — the deliberate staging of environmental disasters, human casualties and all, for the purpose of hyping a big environmental conference and lawsuit NERF is planning. Kenner uses all his brains and guts to foil the plots.

Naturally, there is plenty of suspense, mystery, and action. What Crichton hopes is that readers won’t just go bouncing along with the plot, but will absorb some of the scientific information he frequently includes in the form of dialogues between Kenner and some environmental true believer. For example, Kenner responds to a flip comment by an environmental lawyer that Antarctica is melting due to global warming by printing out a list of scientific papers (all of them genuine) in which the researchers have found evidence for Antarctic cooling. The lawyer merely responds by saying that the studies were probably financed by the coal industry.

Kenner counterattacks by asking if the lawyer holds his views merely because his salary is paid by environmental groups. The lawyer becomes angry at the implication that he is just a paid flunky, and Kenner then bores in.

“Now you know how legitimate scientists feel when their integrity is impugned by slimy characterizations such as the one you just made. Sanjong and I gave you a careful, peer-reviewed interpretation of data. Made by several groups of scientists from several different countries. And your response was first to ignore it, and then to make an ad hominem attack.You didn’t answer the data. You didn’t provide counter evidence. You just smeared with innuendo.”

State of Fear is chock full of important lessons like that. Once he gets rolling, Crichton is like a guy who, now that he has his chain saw out, figures he might as well cut up not just the downed tree branch in his backyard, but all the rest of the dead wood around. He goes after lots of other environmental pseudo-issues (such as that power lines cause cancer) and emphasizes the high cost of some environmental policies (such as the resurgence of malaria since greens managed to have DDT banned). By the book’s end, there’s a big pile of sawdust that used to be the environmentalist thought-world.

Of course, the book has been blasted by the greens and big-government interventionists who don’t want to see one of their prize justifications for the expansion of the state called into question. Their ire alone is almost enough to recommend State of Fear. Crichton’s brief essay “Why Politicized Science Is Dangerous” (included as an appendix) is certainly enough to recommend it.

Sample this rarity — a best-seller that has something very important to say.