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Reading notes : State of Fear

january 2006

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Year of publishing

Nb pages



Minimum scientific background required
State of Fear

Michael Crichton



7 £ (paperback, UK)

Harper Collins (UK)


Truly great novel, but why turn it into truly great science ?


I can't wait until State of Fear gives birth, as it will surely do, to a movie. Action (a lot), sex (not too much), fabulous landscapes (plenty), thrill, constant surprises (and, as far as I'm concerned, gorgeous actresses) : every important piece for a blockbuster is already in the book, actually almost written as a scenario, and I do not have the slightest doubt that it will perform well at the Box-Office. But why on Earth do so many people want to see a great scientist in Michael Crichton just because he wrote a great novel and, as discussed below, is without any doubt right on target regarding some of his critics of environmental NGOs ? Has the possibility ever been raised, when Crichton published "Jurassic Park", that he could be a great paleontologist, or that he was a great specialist of extra-terrestrial life when "The Andromeda Strain" was released ?

Such a claim can actually be supported only by people who did not read carefully the first pages, as the author and the editor themselves explain that the content of the book does not reflect reality, with the following statement written at the very beginning : "This is a work of fiction. Characters, corporations, institutions, and organizations in this novel are the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, are used fictitiously without any intent to describe their actual conduct".

If so, why bother to start a discussion just as if it were a scientific book ? And that this book is not faithful to the real world, anybody can see it, with or without a science degree : in the real world, women interested in environmental conservation do not all look as if they came directely from the centerfold pages of Playboy. This is why I would be the first to be delighted if the content of "State of Fear" was a slightly romanced but accurate description of the world, not only because humankind would be "out of danger", which as a father of two I would welcome, but if so I would kind of run a top-model agency everytime I give a conference or visit a lab : wow !


Wrong method, wrong target... or good method, and good target ?

More seriously, Crichton aims most of his novel against "activists". That's fine as far as science is concerned, and furthermore on this particular point Crichton is frequently "right on target". But scientists should not be taken for accountable for what activists - or anybody else - claim in their name ! Nor must scientists be judged on the basis of what journalists claim they conclude. Scientists must be judged on the basis of what they publish in scientific papers, which of course most people that "disagree" with climate change have never read. Even most journalists that "disagree" with climate change have never read the scientific papers they criticize !

And that's where Crichton's book is unfortunately alike the activists he criticizes so much : he exaggerates. The "science" embedded in the course of the novel includes careful cherrypicking, ignorance of magnitudes, distorsion of real facts, invalid comparisons, or misjdugment. As I don't wan't the reader to think that the single explanation given above - that this is a novel and thus has no obligation to accurately account for science - represents an easy way-out, I will illustrate by a couple examples.

Cherrypicking refers for example to pretending that the full meaning of a paper is correctly represented by a single sentence extracted from it (why would authors bother to write a full article if it could be summarized in a single sentence ?), and more generally to pretending that a quick look at a couple of pieces of a puzzle is equivalent to looking at the full puzzle reconstructed. Michael Crichton is of course aware of what he's doing when he quotes just one sentence from a scientific paper : he knows perfectly well that only a very minor fraction of the journalists commenting his novel - and almost none of his readers, and a very little proportion if any of the congressmen hearing him - will read the scientific papers he's referring to. And, furthermore, among those that will be able to declare that he has distorted the papers, we find the scientists he's aiming at, that those considering Crichton's views will tend to "disqualify" for this sole reason : so clever !

Ignorance of magnitudes will often apply in the following context : since the world is in perpetual motion (which is absolutely true), that nature is sometimes cruel (which is also perfectly true), any human action on the world is nothing different than what happens "naturally". Well, Mr Crichton knows perfectly well, as a physician he is, that all diseases are not equal, just because they "all make you ill" !

Distortion of real facts is something else found in the book. It can be for example describing the IPCC as a huge group of bureaucrats. As the IPCC staff amounts to no more than several tens people (something easy to check), it seems to me that it's a little exaggerated to call them a "huge" group... It is indeed a group of "bureaucrats", just like the staff of Crichton's editor : they both work in an office. Are all people that work in an office necessarily "bureaucrats", a term that probably means overpaid liars ? Well, that makes a huge groupe for sure, when about half of the active population in occidental countries have office jobs...

An example of invalid comparison is given when one of the main character - holding Crichton's views, obviously - reports a prediction made by Hansen in 1988, that said the temperature would rise by 0.35 °C in a decade, when the actual value was 0.11 °C. I will not comment whether the figures are correctly reported (maybe the scientific paper quoted gave a bracket and Crichton only reported the higher end, for example). I will not comment the fact that here Crichton chooses to trust the value of the planetary mean increase, whereas in other parts of the book he says that such calculations are not reliable.

What I will comment is just the way Crichton reports the error, because any college student will understand what I mean : Crichton considers that Hansen made a 300% error by predicting a 0.35 instead of a 0.11 °C increase. Indeed, 0.35 divided by 0.11 equals to about 300% : perfectly correct ! Except that... he afterwards compares with the difference between a 3 hour and a 1 hour plane trip. Well, in the cases of temperatures, what he should have compared to make the parallel valid is the relative difference between the predicted temperature in 1998 in kelvins with the actual value in kelvins (kelvins measure absolute temperatures, just like hours measure the total length of a flight, and that's why kelvins is the only unit to be used in physical formulas, and not Celsius or Farenheit degrees). And then the actual value and the predicted value (say 288 and 288,2) differ by... 0,07% !

Another figure included in the book is relative to the net effect of Kyoto (0,04 °C less or more in 2100). First of all, in order to give such a figure, one has to trust the very same models than those "shot down in flames" earlier in the book (because the temperature in 2100 is necessarily the result of a simulation, and is not measured yet !). So, these models are trustworthy, or it's a piece of crap ? I would like to know ! More seriously, this result (0,04 ° C less or more) assumes that "without Kyoto" we have constantly rising emissions, and that "with Kyoto" we have... constantly rising emissions also, only they are shifted a couple years to allow for a brief period during which emissions are constant.

But as Kyoto is part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC in short), that aims at "stabilizing" the greenhouse gases concentrations in the air, and as stabilizing the CO2 concentrations means dividing the emissions by 2 then 3 then 4, "with Kyoto" is actually "with the UNFCCC" and cannot mean everising emissions. Furthermore, the limits on fossil fuel ultimate reserves forbid everising CO2 emissions up to the end of the 21st century, Kyoto or not, but this doesn't mean that we are guaranteed against trouble !

At last, Crichton also uses misdjudgment. Just like Lomborg he praises so much (it is explicitely written at the end of the book), the latter being the champion of invalid comparisons and invalid extrapolations, Crichton likes to consider that the opposite of "we do not know everything" is "we know nothing". To get back to the puzzle image just above, a hazy picture of a puzzle with a couple of pieces missing in it is definitely not "we have a clear view of everything", but neither it is "we do not have the slightest idea of what we are looking at" !

It's funny that at the end of the book Crichton advocates - through one of the main characters - for "independant" science, promoting intercomparison of results, when it's exactely the purpose of... the IPCC !


Crichton's personnal point of view on science

At the end of the book, there is a chapter titled "author's message", that delivers Crichton's point of view on climate change without using the characters of the novel (it's Crichton who is expressing himself). It's in essence a short summary of Lomborg (Lomborg's law is : any extrapolation is valid as long as it suits me), only Crichton has higher marketing skills : 1.5 million copies sold, when Lomborg did "just" 100,000 (and your humble servant only 5,000 !). If unanimity is not a suspicion of truth (something Crichton declared to a French paper), then on the basis of the number of copies sold he should be the first victim of his own rule !

This "author's message" is actually the same mixing up of scientists, politicians, activists and journalists than what can be found in the novel, scientists being supposedly accountable for the whole information that the combined system sends to the general public.


Bull's eye !

If Crichton is totally missing the point regarding science, I must confess that he is much more on target regarding "activists" - and partly the media. Indeed, many activists I have met behave towards science exactely like Crichton does : they carefully select what suits their views and ignore or fight what doesn't, without taking the time to examine thoroughly the primary information available (this is particularly true regarding nuclear energy), they emphasize the higher end of the bracket when all outcomes are equiprobable, they trust or distrust "science" depending on the subject, in turn saying that scientists are objective and in turn saying that they have been bought by Big Business, even though it might be the same people (!), etc. Crichton is also right to point out that some activists have a personnal way of of life which is in full contradiction with what they suggest for others (large houses, plane travel, large cars, etc), without even acknowleging it ("I've got good reasons" is not unfrequent...).

And at last he is right to point out that a significant fraction of activists have a binary view of the world, ignoring magnitudes (rooting up a tree of half the Amazon forest is the same, a single chloride atom somewhere is equivalent to poisonning the whole world, anything which can be detected is necessarily harmful, etc), see only the "dark side" when every action has necessarily a positive aspect (even if the "bad" side outsizes the "good" side), idealize "nature" (even when "nature" produces plagues or earthquakes), mix up morals and science (science is understanding the world, not judging it), willingly oversimplify the responsibilities in a given problem, etc. Such personnalities cannot promote pragmatical solutions, though they are the only ones that work.

But of course we should be careful not to assimilate anyone involved in environment preservation with the "extremism" that this kind of motivation sometimes generates, then making the same mistake that Crichton is making is his book.


To conclude, read State of Fear as an adventure book, and you'll have a great time ! For an outlook on global warming trust your professor of physics, rather.


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