Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Off to Mexico

For those few of you who check this site, I'll be off to Mexico this afternoon. I'll be gone a week to Villahermosa, Palenque, and San Cristobal de las Casas.

Perhaps I'll do some blogging offline but don't expect any new posts unitl March 16 or 17.

Monday, March 07, 2005


Popular nonsense

I had been ready to ignore the new novel by Michael Crichton, State of Fear and was doing so until I read George Will’s column of Dec. 22, 2004 .

I often like Will’s columns but this was such a bad example of someone so ignorant of science and its ways as to be ignorant of one’s ignorance that it worried me. For a lengthy discussion of what was wrong with this column see here and here

The very worst aspect of the column (it seems to me) was Will’s refrence to an article in the 10 Dec 76 issue of Science. The only article in that issue remotely related to the topic of your column is by Hays et al. (p. 1121-1132); however, it's about the effect of variation of the Earth's orbit around the Sun on climate. This has nothing to do with global warming as effected by atmospheric chemistry. The very last sentence to say this: “…the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and a cooler climate.” This is a concern wholly apart from today’s worries about global warming, which is a concern over whether or not humans are changing the climate by change the composition of the atmospehre. Will suggested that since three scientists in 1976 said the earth was cooling and today a bunch of other scientists saw we should be concerned about warming that the public really shouldn’t trust those wacky scientists. It very much seems that another ice age might be down the pike - in about 20,000 years. The concerns about global warming as related to atmospheric chemistry are on a much shorter time scale and on top of the longer-term cycles of orbital variation. Moreover, concern about CO2 and other gases has grown significantly since the paper by Hays et al. in 1976.

All of this I knew without reading Crichton’s book but I decided to read it to see if Will had misrepresented it as well. The book puts on airs with footnotes to “document” certain statements made by characters in the book. I didn’t bother to look up each one but others have done this here and here and found many problems.

But in many ways I liked the tone of the book. Although he makes his points using caricatures, I agree that too many people don’t pay attention to the actual world around them when deciding what to do. They act on what they would like things to be, not on what they really are. They don’t even know what they really are. This kind of knowledge does not come easy so many folks would rather hang crystals around their necks than go to the doctor because they don’t understand medicine.

The problem with Crichton’s book, however, is not that lots of environmentalists are cuckoos but that he doesn’t seem to understand that the Earth scientists who are calling the alarm regarding anthropogenic climate change are actually pretty careful and well aware of how to test ideas about nature against actual observation.

If you liked Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park, then State of Fear might entertain as well. Just don’t expect a guy who gets paid to make stuff up to be a good source about the state of a complicated scientific issue (even if he puts footnotes in his novel).

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