Quiet Mumblings

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Michael Crichton's State of Fear

Having just read Michael Crichton's State of Fear, I think I'll start this blog with a vague critique.

I am a Michael Crichton fan - as a non-scientist average Joe I find his books enjoyable and often fascinating. It is important to take his words with a pinch of salt - with subjects that I do know about he's not always quite on target - but generally he gets me to think about topics that would otherwise pass me by.

State of Fear is his take on climate change, global warming etc. In it we follow the increasingly thrilling (and unlikely) escapades of an American attorney as he slowly and reluctantly gets converted from believing that anthropogenic (human-generated) global warming is a real threat, to believing that it is simply a tool used to scare the population of the developed world into behaving the way their government, and large institutions, would like them to. It is quite a journey, and in between all of the action and adventure we get presented with mountains of evidence to back up his ideas. And as always with Crichton's books, the data is convincing, inspiring and exciting - the impression is similar to that of the Da Vinci Code - of being let into a secret global conspiracy that seems too big to be true.

Unfortunately, as with the Da Vinci Code and with Crichton's other works, it is just a highly enjoyable fantasy. A bit of internet research will find countless references with just as impressive titles as the ones in his book which at least cast his certainties into doubt. The best source I found was on a site called RealClimate.org, which reviews his work almost as if it were a scientific publication, and pretty much tears it to shreds. Crichton also brings up a number of interesting side notes, such as claiming that environmental hysteria about DDT caused pressure on third world countries to stop using it, and resulted in the malaria deaths of millions. Even this is not clear cut in reality.

But the action is good? Well, actually, no its not. Its a bit more Hollywoodesque than the average Crichton thriller - going very silly in places and sometimes seeming a very over the top to prove its point. Our intrepid attorney and his fellow travelers are trapped down ice crevices in the Arctic, caught in flash floods in central USA, shot at, struck multiple times by lightening, poisoned with obscure octopi, captured and almost eaten by cannibals, and much more. There are unlikely reunions, stupid villains, unbelievable victories and a rather damp squib of an ending.

So we should just throw it away? No - I don't think so. It has the one redeeming feature that even the worst Crichton thrillers have - passion for its subject matter. It did make me think, and it did make me want to know more about the science behind global warming. It also put some questions in my mind about the validity of all of the climate data that we are presented with - Crichton did not in any way convince me that global warming is a hoax, but he did a very good job of demonstrating how difficult it is to convincingly prove the case on either side. The environment is a complex beast and we don't really understand it as much as we would like to.

Overall - worth a read, as long as you don't take it seriously!

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