When SF Authors Think They’re Real Scientists…

Ok, I haven’t read it myself; the following commentary is based on reviews and reports released so far.

The odd thing about this book is that Crichton seems to be pretending to defend “science” and the world from the threats posed by “eco-terrorists” and those who over-hype the threats to our world from human-caused global warming. While this seems a change of course from his past books of warning, in fact it is as anti-science as any of them. Though while his earlier books seem to have been at least wise cautions against technical hubris – unleashing genetically restored dinosaurs is probably less likely to happen thanks to Crichton’s novels – this new one seems unfortunately simply to be a call to continue ignoring what really is the worst case of human technical hubris yet exposed…

The scientific case for human-caused warming has strengthend substantially in the last few years – see for example the Discovery of Global Warming site we covered here this past summer. The odd thing is that this strong scientific case seems to have put those who wield power in the US into some sort of state of panic, sponsoring biased online sites and think tanks and individuals to try to confuse the public discourse. The corporations running the energy industry may be right to feel threatened – the real question is why an MD science fiction author like Crichton (or Jerry Pournelle, who has also attacked climate change) feels obligated to spread the corporate line.

A couple of interesting rebuttals have been posted on the realclimate.org blogMichael Crichton’s State of Confusion, and Michael Crichton’s State of Confusion II: Return of the Science.

Unfortunately this is all working very well for Crichton – despite poor reviews (the plot and narration suffer from the polemics, according to Amazon reviews) it’s currently #2 on the Amazon best sellers list….

11 thoughts on “When SF Authors Think They’re Real Scientists…”

  1. Bad science in a fiction novel doesn’t prove anything. What about midieval warm period in 10-14th centuries? Was it due to GHG emissions? What about little ice age in 17th century? Was it a result of some 16th century Kyoto treaty?

    As for Criton’s writing, from what I read Disclosure was his only book where science did not have glaring holes. The Prey was a script for a B-grade monster movie. I am not going to buy this book either. If more people do likewise, maybe next time he would write something worth reading, instead of cashing in on his name.

  2. and even global climate, though records aren’t as good for the whole world before the 1800s or so, obviously. Natural variation in the past doesn’t logically bear any relation to human-caused variation now – I don’t understand why people obsess over that so much.

    But read the realclimate or “Discovery of Global Warming” pages for more detail on these issues – for example “Weren’t temperatures warmer than today during the “Medieval Warm Period”?, Medieval Warm Period, and Little Ice Age. Basically, most of the evidence indicates that if these are even real events, they were regional, not global, effects – though global temperatures were on a general decline from Medieval times to the past hundred years or so.

  3. global temperatures were on a general decline from Medieval times to the past hundred years or so.

    OK, so what happens when a natural “general decline” of temperatures ends?
    Either a forever-unchanging temperature or a warming is what ends a cooling period.

  4. Natural variation in the past doesn’t logically bear any relation to human-caused variation now

    Sure. But first you have to assume that the current warming is human-made. It’s quite possible that it’s also a natural climate variation.

    But read the realclimate or “Discovery of Global Warming” pages for more detail on these issues

    I’ve read the articles you gave. But you have not read what I posted: the wiki links and the references within.

    most of the evidence indicates that if these are even real events, they were regional, not global, effects

    You should add that you are refering to the most of the evidence provided by the realclimate.org. Most of its arguments are also based on local climate observations.

    though global temperatures were on a general decline from Medieval times to the past hundred years

    So, now they are rising. Naturally?

  5. It’s simple physics – bolstered by detailed climate models that increasingly agree with all the available data. Humans are increasing global CO2, and the increase in global CO2 has the effect of forcing temperatures to rise. Yes there are natural effects from solar variation, Earth’s orbit, and the occasional volcano in there – but all those are also measurable as forcings, and all the peer-reviewed research on this agrees that any recent changes in natural forcings are now less than the effect of human-caused CO2 increases.

    People who deny human-caused global warming are denying very sound science. The case is as strong as that for evolution, health damage from cigarette smoke, or general relativity. Even the Bush administration agrees that humans are causing global warming (at least when they let their scientists out to talk to people about it).

    And the wikipedia link you gave, at least when I looked at it, included this quote from the 2001 IPCC report: “…current evidence does not support globally synchronous periods of anomalous cold or warmth over this timeframe, and the conventional terms of ‘Little Ice Age’ and ‘Medieval Warm Period’ appear to have limited utility in describing trends in hemispheric or global mean temperature changes in past centuries.” – though I’d never trust wikipedia to be 100% accurate on anything anyway.

  6. The physics are not simple, and the “detailed” models aren’t.

    Look up the models, or look at the IPCC descriptions of them. There are many known shortcomings with them, including that they do not include known factors or estimate the effects. There also are many effects which are not understood and are not in the models; this is reflected in alterations to the models and “significant progress” phrasing used by IPCC to mean “we didn’t understand this earlier and know more about it now”.

    For example: Warming increases water vapor in the air. Water vapor causes most of the planet’s greenhouse warming. But does more water vapor increase warming? If more water at higher altitudes warms up, does that also warm lower altitudes? Do more clouds form? Do those clouds increase or decrease temperatures? We don’t know, and models can’t include proper behavior.

    For that matter, even some apparently simple things can trip up “experts”.
    “If the urban heat island hypothesis is correct, he says, instruments should have recorded a bigger temperature rise for calm nights than for windy ones – because wind blows excess heat away from cities and away from the measuring instruments.” Simple? But wind turbines can cause warming due to wind turbulence, and perhaps urban buildings cause similar wind mixing even on “calm” nights.

  7. The basic zero-dimensional physics of the greenhouse effect is simple, but I agree it took a long time for people to realize that. The result is a net force on the whole Earth system, caused by the CO2 we have added to the atmosphere, a force that causes an increase in temperatures. As you add details you get a more accurate picture of the reaction of the whole Earth system, but it is extremely rare in natural systems for the stable reaction to a force to actually be in the opposite direction to the forcing (usually the reaction is a buffered reduction in the first-order effects). The real question is whether the reaction of the atmosphere increases or decreases the naive expectation from direct CO2 forcing – and that’s where the detailed calculations are needed.

    Despite your claims that the models are still not detailed enough, the “Discovery of Global Warming” site has a wonderfully detailed account of the history of the calculations on radiation effects:

    [..Around 1963..] it was now more clear than ever that modelers would have to think deeply about feedbacks, such as changes in humidity and their consequences.

    Clouds were always the worst problem. Obviously the extent of the planet’s cloud cover might change along with temperature and humidity. And obviously even the simplest radiation balance calculation required a number that told how clouds reflect sunlight back into space.

    and then further detail on the more recent general circulation models:

    Reproducing the present climate, however, did not guarantee that GCMs could reliably predict a quite different climate. The first hurdle was to reproduce the peculiar rise-fall-rise of temperature since the late 19th century. Now models could do that, by putting in the history of aerosol and solar variations along with greenhouse gases.

    Confidence rose further in the late 1990s when the modelers’ failure to match the CLIMAP data on ice-age temperatures was resolved. The breakthrough came when a team under Lonnie Thompson of the Polar Research Center at Ohio State University struggled onto a high-altitude glacier in the tropical Andes. They managed to drill out a core that recorded atmospheric conditions back into the last ice age. The results, they announced, “challenge the current view of tropical climate history…”(94) It was not the computer models that had been unreliable — it was the oceanographers’ complex manipulation of their data as they sought numbers for tropical sea-surface temperatures. A variety of other new types of climate measures agreed that tropical ice age waters had turned significantly colder, by perhaps 3C or more. That was roughly what the GCMs had calculated.

    the factors that modelers did not understand seemed to have gotten incorporated somehow into the parameters within the complex workings of the models. For the models did agree on reasonable results for such different conditions as arctic and tropics, ocean and desert, summer and winter, present and ice age climates. None of the critics had been able to use different assumptions to produce a halfway successful atmosphere model: if a model worked at all, it predicted some level of greenhouse warming. At worst, the models were somehow all getting right results for wrong reasons — flaws which would only show up after greenhouse gases pushed the climate beyond any conditions that the modelers had attempted to reproduce. If there were such deep-set flaws, that did not mean, as some critics implied, that there was no need to worry about global warming. As other experts pointed out, if the models were faulty, the future climate changes could be worse than they predicted, not better.

    For overall global warming, however, the ocean-atmosphere GCMs at various centers were converging on similar predictions. The decades of work by teams of specialists, backed up by immense improvements in computers and data, had gradually built up confidence. It was largely thanks to their work that, as the editor of Science magazine announced in 2001, a “consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in the history of science.” Nearly every expert now agreed that the old predictions were solid — raising the CO2 level was all but certain to warm the globe. Doubling the level would most likely raise the average temperature around 3C, give or take a degree or two. The consequences of such a warming were also predictable. Sea levels would certainly rise. And the weather would certainly change, probably toward an intensified cycle of storms, floods, and droughts. The greatest uncertainty now was no longer in how to calculate the effects of the greenhouse gases and aerosols that humanity poured into the atmosphere. The greatest unknown for the coming century was how much of this pollution we would decide to emit.

  8. “Critics were quick to point out the flaws in models as publicly as possible. It was not just that there were questionable assumptions in the equations. There were also undeniable problems in the basic physical data that the models relied on, and in the way the data were manipulated to fit things together.

    Nevertheless, the factors that modelers did not understand seemed to have gotten incorporated somehow into the parameters within the complex workings of the models. For the models did agree on reasonable results for such different conditions as arctic and tropics, ocean and desert, summer and winter, present and ice age climates.”

    It says the models had a lot of problems but magically produced “reasonable” results. And because they magically came up with similar results, those results are somehow correct.

    “It is possible to tune a model so that some variable appears consistent with that observed, but we must also ask whether it comes out that way for the right reason and with the right variability.” – IPCC TAR

    Everyone used to agree the Sun moved around the Earth. Some models used spheres within spheres, while others used a flying wagon. But the models did agree on reasonable results, and day followed night.

  9. I used to do electronic structure calculations in physics, chemistry, materials science areas. “Band structure” calculations – though we all knew full-well the one-electron approximation on which band structure is nominally based is invalid; nevertheless it provides insight, and it does seem to correctly predict many physical properties, including Fermi surface shapes, energy levels, net inter-nuclear forces in a solid or at a surface, etc.

    There are lots of theoretical justifications for why the approximations of band structure theory are valid – the “density functional” arguments are the main basis. And all of that theory plus a few fudge factors goes into creating the pseudopotentials that are at the heart of the process – the key approximation that makes it possible to integrate out multi-electron effects and particularly the effects of the core electrons, close to nuclei, which can be in most cases just ignored from that point on.

    But what makes people trust ab initio band structure calculations is not all that theory, but experience with these models of atomic systems as quantum systems of electrons and pseudo-nuclei – there are many ways to set up the models, but they almost all produce useful and practical results, and have become something materials scientists can rely on to a great degree – certainly more than the ad-hoc classical molecular dynamics potentials such as Stillinger-Weber, which held sway for a long time in modeling of covalently bonded solids.

    Same goes for the climate models – read the “discovery of global warming” page I pointed you to again, on the General Circulation Models. It’s freely admitted there are fudge factors in there to make the models work. But as long as the number of fudge factors is considerably less than the number of data points that you’re finding a good fit too (and from all indications, this seems to be abundantly true for the latest generations of climate models), there’s an excellent chance you’re not just randomly getting it right, but actually getting to the heart of what’s really going on in the models.

    That’s why any scientist familiar with modeling knows this is good science now, and why places like Science are so confident in the consensus.

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