Monday, January 24, 2005

The State of Fear

The Western world and it's various governments have provided it's citizens with more wealth, comfort, and well-being than man has ever known. While there are general threats to our individual safety from crime, and direct threats from terrorisim, the West is a relatively peaceful place, compared to other great societies in human history. So why are we so afraid of, well, everything?

Michael Crichton attempts to answer that question in his latest novel "State Of Fear", a book I am currently reading. "State of Fear" has erupted a sort of minor controversey in some cirlcles because it unabashedly states that the theory of Global Warming is, in fact, a hoax, perpetrated by various factions for various reasons, some well-intentioned, others less so. The book's plot is that extremists in the environmental movement, struggling to keep awareness and money flowing to the cause of fighting "global warming", are attempting to stage various major weather catastrophies to highten the "state of fear" of the public on the issue. As a novel, it's not so great. It reads fast, to be sure, but as a longtime Crichton fan, I was dissapointed in his characterization, the flatness of the dialogue, and the surprising lack of major action set pieces. In fact, while the topics he discusses are interesting, important, and deserve better treatment from some reviewers have given them, I would say that this is his weakest work since "Airframe". I wasn't even going to write about it until I came upon an item on Drudge today.

Drudge had a headline up that read "Report: Countdown to Global Warming Catastrophe". It linked to this piece in the Independet, which reports(or should I say editorializes) on a new study by a task force made up of "senior politicians, business leaders and academics from around the world" that tells us that we have just 10 years to stop the "global warming" trend before it is too late. Now, Crichton's novel does one thing very well-it tells us to question conventional wisdom, so I went looking for the text of this report, who was on the panel, and how they came to this "10 years or bust" theory. I was especially interested in the 10 years part, because Crichton correctly points out that computer modeling on the environment is woefully inadequate, and that long term weather changes are literally impossible to predict. Using Crichton's footnotes, the very unpredictability of weather is his strongest case against alarmist reports like this one. So I googled the report's name, "Meeting The Climate Challenge". It was funded by The Center for American Progress (Hard-core liberals whose main office is in my building! Reuters DC HQ is right below them. Coincidence?), the UK's Public Policy Research Group, and The Australian Institute. All three are liberal environmentalist groups. All I found about who was on the committee at first was that the co-chairs were Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Stephen Byers, the foremer Transport Minister in the UK. Great, politicians in charge. Then, I cam across this page, which actully finally lists who was on the damn committee and reading the whole thing there, I found that the report is essentially just a wish list for environmentalists as they contemplate Kyoto-Phase Two.

Now, remember, this "report" is being touted as difinitive proof for need for immediate action. Yet, it's funded by three large liberal interest groups(OK, I don't know much about the UK group or the Aussie one, but the UK one labels itself "progrssive", and a look at the Center for American Progress homepage demonstrates just how "non-partisan" they are. They also aren't much of a think tank, actually...) and the story in the Independent, that "catastrophie is imminent". Yet, all they are reporting on is a press release from these three groups and the main task force. There are no scientific references to be found, because the report isn't due out until TOMORROW! That's right, the Independent essentially quoted a press release with no science in the text as proof that disaster is right around the corner. There is a moment in Crichton's book that I thought was a bit much, where a news anchor essentially reads a talking points memo put out by an environmentalist group as fact. This part was ripped up by a reviewer for the Skpetical Inquirer. Yet, here we have an actual occasion of a reporter, Michael McCarthy, essentially just quoting a press release about a new study that hasn't even come out yet. He's the Environmental Editor of the paper, and he took what this group is selling wholesale.

Now, this is pretty outrageous. In fact, my rant here has gone on longer than I thought it would because some of those links sprouted up while I was writing. But Crichton's best point, and the one that I wanted to get too, is on the "State of Fear". A socioligist tells the protaganist that ever since the Berlin Wall fell, the "political, legal, media complex, or PLM" has needed something to keep citizens in a constant state of worry. Politicians need to scare people to have issues to get elected on, lawyers need fear to drive lawsuits(Crichton excellently uses the false scare of silicone breast implants) and the media needs fear to drive ratings. None of these ideas are new, but Crichton combines them in a new way. I read this passage of the book 12 hours ago, and I wake up and find the example that proves it, sort of, on Drudge! Crichton points out that terrorism is the new fear, but he acknowledges the reality of terrorism, and points out that environmental "threats" have been getting worse in the media since 9/11. The word "catastrophie" is applied to major storms and weather changes in the media now more than ever. Until the Berlin Wall fell, the old fear in the US was communisim. It was real,of course, but when it went away, smaller fears filled the vaccum until the massive fear of environmental "disaster" took over. And here, Crichton hits his stride. His sociologist points out that millions of dollars are wasted on lawsuits that have no merit, and wastes of cash and resources on pointless feel-good gestures like Kyoto, while the developing world really needs direct cash relief. Genocide and famine occur in poor Africa and Asia while do-gooders go to UN conferences, spend a lot of money, and feel good about themselves. It is a travesty, and this new report coming out, which I will actually read tomorrow, when it comes out, and draw my own conclusion, only adds to it. I'm thankful Drudge is such a sucker for crazy headlines, or else I never would have noticed the article. Of course, now he's grouped it with stories about winter storms, as if Boston getting 17 inches of snow is somehow connected. Oh well.

I guess my point is that for a not so good work of fiction, Michael Crichton has done critical thinkers the world over a good way of questioning just how real the "threats" we face are. We are told by people on the Left that terrorism isn't a real threat. OK, prove it isn't, defeat my proof it is, and I may believe you. You also tell us the sky is falling. I'm listenting. Where is your proof?


Blogger t0m said...

You make a common mistake. You confuse what you read in the mass media for the real scientific consensus. If you want a good understanding of where climate science is, read a peer-reviewed science journal, for example Nature. If you just pull from the mass media to "prove" this or that, you're just showing your ignorance. More often than not, the mass media misinterprets the real science rather badly. Read Nature, and listen to the recommendations of the scientists themselves.

Also, Chriton's work of fiction about global warming is about as plausible as re-creating a lost species from fossilized tree sap. Don't tell me you bought that hook line and sinker. His numerous citiations were misleading and purely for dramatic effect. The sad thing is, many will read this and think they learned about science.

Mon Jan 24, 05:25:00 PM 2005  
Blogger C.M. Burns said...

But that was Crichton's whole point-that the public buys the media message and knows nothing about the science. My point relating to the "State of Fear" is that since the media controls the message, all that gets out is the scary part, ie a new "study" says we have 10 years to turn around Global Warming or we're screwed. I admit my rant was a bit roundabout, but I was saying people should seek out the actual science, not buy a press release. What I pointed out was that the Drudge headline and the Independent article were reprinted basically verbatim from a press release about a report that hadn't come out yet. As I said, when people tell you there is or isn't a threat, ask for the proof. The scientific proof.

Did I buy the fiction that a conpspiracy like Crichton's would take place? No, and as I said, it's not a great novel, or even that good. But the "non-fiction" parts of the book, the sourced stuff, was interesting and raised legitimate questions about the so-called "consensus" on global warming, ie, there isn't a consensus. There is no certain way to predict what will happen. And again, I think my point agrees with yours-find the real data from real scientists, not from press releases or the media. And as far as I could tell, he sourced stuff was pretty good, not all-encompasing, and his work is a polemic, but it's useful. Better than shouting than into an echo chamber, flawed as the book may be it does encourage critical thought.

Mon Jan 24, 08:33:00 PM 2005  

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