Global Warming: Don’t Blame The Aliens Mr. Crichton

I was recently asked by a fellow Newsvine user what my opinion was on a 2003 speech given by author Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, State of Fear) at Cal. Tech. titled "Aliens Cause Global Warming." I recalled the title and having read it some time ago, but went back to read it over again earlier today. It’s a fairly lengthy read and I won’t go into any sort of line-by-line discussion of the entire speech. However, I do believe that there are some very important issues Crichton brings up that I would like to provide some further information on in addition to my own opinions and positions. I suspect a lot of this article won’t make much sense without having first read his lecture, so please do so first if you haven’t yet.

Alien Invasion Leads to Nuclear War?

Essentially, the premise Mr. Crichton presents is that roughly forty years ago in the U.S., a trend began that would eventually lead us to a politicization of science that would be required for something such as so-called global warming to be widely promoted in the media and by scientists. The SETI movement, which “is unquestionably a religion” in Crichton’s view, was based on pseudo-science and fundamentally flawed assumptions beginning with the Drake Equation (see also Wikipedia’s entry). Crichton states that the problem with the equation "is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated." He continues: "nor can there be ‘informed guesses.’ " Now, I don’t want to spend much time on SETI, as it isn’t Cricthon’s main point and I don’t wish it to be mine. However, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is most definitely not a religion, as it is just that: a search. It doesn’t assume that something is there. Rather, it is looking to confirm if it is (i.e. – testing a hypothesis). The Drake Equation is nothing more than a rough estimator to show that even with very low odds of any one part of the universe having intelligent life, given the vastness of all space, the end probability is still pretty good. To claim that none of the variables can be known is essentially true, since we can never explore all space. However, to claim that there can be no informed guesses is just kind of silly. We have information by which we can make estimates. However, we’ll see soon that Mr. Crichton has a hard time understanding what that seems to mean and what it doesn’t mean.

The lecture then moves onto the much more politically laced movement within parts of the science community that took place in the seventies and eighties: nuclear winter (or, more accurately, hoping to avoid such a thing; see also here.). Crichton describes the TTAPS report and that while it "never specifically express[ed]" a similar equation, he goes to the trouble of providing one for us. He remarks on it’s striking similarity to the Drake equation (one wonders where he got the idea for it…) and the explains that "none of the variables can be determined. None at all." Variables such as number of warheads, warhead size, warhead detonation height, and a few others. Of course, the result is based on input and until a series of nuclear warheads goes off, we wouldn’t know some of those numbers. However, assuming someone was left alive to count, we very well could know those values. This isn’t counting all of the infinite universe, but the very finite set of nuclear warheads (not just on Earth, but again, in a single event). The other variables, while difficult to know precisely, would not be hard to substitute with averaged estimates. Of course, the results would only be as good as the estimates, but these are testable things which scientists and engineers are very good at determining. That is, when the assumed equation is also valid. Since TTAPS didn’t write one but rather Mr. Crichton did, I have my doubts. As we’ll also see, Crichton has some confused notions about what a mathematical model is, how one is created, and what its uses are.

Scientific Consensus: The Mavericks Are Always the Rightest?

Crichton describes the invoking of consensus as "the first refuge of scoundrels" (patriotism is the last, so I have to wonder where to scoundrels go in between?). He states that "the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus." Of that, I have no disagreement, but it is actually a very rare thing that a scientist would defend their work or conclusions based on consensus. However, in advising policy, consensus becomes not only involved but very important. Given Mr. Crichton’s training as a physician, let us consider a small example to demonstrate the difference. If you are given grave medical advice, you might seek a second opinion. If it differs from the first, you might also seek a third to try and find some idea of which was correct. Why? Because you want to know what the consensus is, not just the worst. Now, if two out of the three physicians agreed on your grave prognosis, you’d be more inclined to act on it than if it were just one of them. Again, consensus to help shape policy. Any one of the doctors may have used sound procedure and judgment to determine differing opinions. However, varying conclusions require the effected person (or people) to make a decision on what to do. That is policy versus science on a very small level. Crichton later pleads for a way to seperate the two, which sounds great save for one thing: who will advise policy if not the experts in their field? Ah, well, that appears to be where untrained politicians and science fiction authors come in (which is really for another article, since it is outside of the scope of this lecture and my response).

Allow me to jump the gun here, since I’m on the subject of scientific consensus, and get to how it applies to global warming as that is the ultimate topic. I agree with the idea that science facts are not a democracy. For an idea to be right, it only need be hypothesized by one person (or few people). On the other hand, as right ideas become more mainstream and accepted, a consensus naturally forms. At some point, those ideas are so readily accepted as be actionable, or essentially fact. This is where scientific consensus comes into play and why it does matter when it comes to setting policy, as I tried to demonstrate with the three doctor delimma above. In 2004, Naomi Oreskes wrote a paper titled "Beyond The Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change" in which she surveyed nearly 1,000 peer-reviewed journal articles on climate change. From that article (emphasis mine):

The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.

Now, while we all agree that for an idea to be right, it doesn’t need consensus. But if the idea was wrong, wouldn’t at least one out of nearly 1,000 papers hope to provide some credible, alternate theory as to the observed phenomena? If all three doctors had told you the same prognosis, wouldn’t you be crazy not to act on it?

Crichton gives various examples of what he feels are bad consensus judgments, none of which I want to discuss in depth other than to say this: since when was science described as anything other than a slow process with which skepticism was required to be overcome through observations and reproducible evidence? Of course it often begins with one person (or few people) with a new hypothesis and then they must, over time, show their hypothesis to be correct. That is the scientific method (and we’ll see that it applies to global warming more than you or Mr. Crichton may have realized). Now, as Crichton goes on, he makes it out that if anymore than a single individual holds a scientific notion to be true then we should all discount it. We should be skeptical of new, untested hypothesis until they are shown to be more accurate than previous ones. But more accurate than what?

You Mean Science Can Predict the Future?

Science begins by observing a phenomenon in nature: an apple always falls to the ground, new mothers seem to contract fevers at high rates, the planet is getting warmer each year, etc. The scientist asks why and proposes an answer: the hypothesis. Tests are determined to see if the hypothesis hold true in future experiments. Now, there are far too many misconceptions to get into (and even my description likely can’t fit every case that is still considered sound science) but one very common misconception is what is meant by ‘experiment.’ They are not always people with white lab coats and clipboards watching a vile of liquid boil on a laboratory counter. Often it is nothing more than determining what value will occur next in nature. This confusion has long plagued evolutionary biologists as well as climate scientists. What are their experiments? To be sure, some are done in laboratory settings, but most are further observations of nature to see if they agree with a predictive hypothesis (will the next fossil of a give age exhibit the traits we expect?, will the change in temperature affect northern latitude plant life in a expected way?).

Mr. Crichton sets up one of the silliest straw men I’ve read in some time with predicting the future here. First, he intentionally obfuscates the difference between weather and climate by saying:

Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?

Well, first, short-term meteorology is actually very accurate and if you want to know what kind of jacket to wear to work, I bet you check the daily weather. However, weather and climate may be related but are far from being the same thing. I cannot predict the weather at a given time next summer but I can tell you that the average daily temperature in the northern hemisphere will be higher than what it is in the winter. Why? Because climate deals with the average patterns of weather over time, not the individual occurrences. Confusion over branches of science aside, Mr. Crichton goes on to take plenty of play hits at his freshly stitched straw man just to show us how silly the notion that science can predict the future is: people in 1900 would never have been able to predict today’s society and what we see everyday. Really? What about the science of the day? I bet Newtonian physics still pretty well describes the trajectory of every projectile launched. I’m willing to bet that germ theory still is important in medicine. I know for a fact that I couldn’t do my day job (structural engineer) without the predictive equations of Euler, Maxwell, and Timoshenko, to name a few. Science is loaded with lots of bold predictive statements made by pompous individuals of what the future will look like to average people, many of which are wrong. However, the ability of the science to hold true is no less valid. There-in lies it’s predictive powers, both in short term and long term.

Those last names I mentioned just now bring me to one of Crichton’s other points of contention with climate science: computer modeling. First of all, I dislike calling them “computer models” when they are more accurately described as mathematical models which happen to run on a computer (because computers are fast at working math routines). Reliance on a mathematical model alone could prove difficult (although it has it’s place in estimating probabilities) so that is why they are usually calibrated to real world observations. Those three scientists I mentioned? They sure did and now have some very recognizable equations to their credit which help me (and my computer) predict how much a beam will deflect or how strong it should be for a given situation. My graduate research involved testing physical specimens which were also being modeled with a computer simulation. The mathematical model was calibrated to match the expected material behavior and was tweaked until it was remarkably close. This allowed for testing of a much wider variety of configurations that would have been practical or even economically possible. Other times, as in the case of Drake’s equation or the notion behind the TTAPS report, this is done because of the scale of what is being estimated. Of course these can be large and complicated, as in the case of climate modeling, but that is where the use of real-world data comes in. Mathematical models are extremely useful and used every day at varying scales. From you personal budget, to the equations that make your computer work, to the ones I use to design buildings, all the way up to climate modeling, they are extremely useful tools which provide results that can help us, in a sense, predict the future. However, that future is based on the past, which we know.

Mr. Crichton neglects to mention that first of all, climate modeling is far from being he only evidence to support the current theory behind the observed global warming. Secondly, regarding the past, he also seems to overlook (while referencing the IPCC, oddly enough) that Chapter 8 of the IPCC is titled: "Model Evaluation" and that Chapters 10 and 12 further explains how the data that has been observed is used to evaluate model accuracy and performance. Further, more recent modeling shows even higher levels of refinement to the known data. Crichton, placing such a great deal of emphasis on modeling, expresses desire that areas of data collection and analysis be separated. This is actually the case throughout a great deal of climate science. This is, once again, in the IPCC report which Crichton finds time to criticize it’s editing process but apparently had little time to actually read (in his defense, it’s incredibly long and detailed).

One last thing on predicting the future, and I hope this goes to show just how silly Mr. Crichton’s straw man is. What if I told you that indeed, the future had been predicted, and from far earlier than 1900? In fact, in 1827 a soon-to-be-famous French mathematician named Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (yes, that Fourier, the one with the ‘transforms’) hypothesized that gases in the atmosphere might increase the temperature of the planet. He likened this idea to a greenhouse. 180 years later, his hypothesis has proven correct much to all our dismay (not to mention the fact that the analogy has also stuck). Later, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius and his colleague Arvid Högbom would discover that manmade gases, namely CO2, from factories could add to the natural carbon cycles from volcanoes, oceans, etc. and in fact raise the temperature of the Earth, given sufficient volume. Both men, assuming 1896 levels of CO2 emissions in Sweden, doubted this would ever be a problem. Unfortunately, it was that latter "prediction," similar to the straw man of Crichton’s, that proved to be incorrect. Human produced carbon now greatly out-paces that of natural carbon cycles. Still, Arrhenius did go on to win a Nobel prize in chemistry, just not for his discovery of anthropogenic climate change nearly fifty years before the first computer would be built. Of course, others would take interest in CO2 cycles and climate modeling. Later, increases in temperature would be recorded at rates which natural cycles couldn’t account for. During the post-WWII industrial boom, particulate air pollution would offset this greenhouse effect and begin a slight cooling of the planet (ironically, Mr. Crichton, this is essentially a low-dose nuclear winter). However, reduction in the particulate emissions without reducing the carbon emissions would result in warming since that has increased at a frightening pace.

A more recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, published in June of this year, stated that the planet was the warmest it’s been in 400 years, and most likely in over 2,000 years, and that human greenhouse gas emissions were to blame. Further, this warming has almost completely occurred during the past century. No modeling involved, just observations and proxies, just as with other fields of science that do not employ mathematical modeling (although those are few and far between). To be fair, this report was published nearly three years after Mr. Crichton gave this lecture, so he didn’t not have the benefit of reading it (assuming he would have). Never-the-less, mathematical models that do accurately following the past 2,000 years of global temperatures show bad news for the future, and even sooner than 100 years away. We likely won’t have to wait that long before rising sea levels, changed weather patterns, and ecological disasters affect mankind for the worse.

My Final Opinion on Crichton’s Lecture

Crichton begins his lecture professing his love for science and his wonder at all that it can accomplish. He then spends the vast majority of it belittling scientists and bemoaning the state of science as it advises policy. It appears he could hold scientists in general in no lower regard, given that they are subject to the same biases and opinions that we all are. I find that the fields of science, climate science being no exception even with it’s extraordinary level of scrutiny, to be as free of such things as can be humanly possible. This is due to the methods put in place for validating hypothesis as well as presenting data to the public (i.g. – peer review). Science is a human endeavor and like all human endeavors it is, by our nature, flawed and imperfect. However, the scientific method is greater than the sum of its parts and produces sound results. Mr. Crichton makes some decent and perhaps well-meaning proposals for improvement (double-blind research) but in truth has little evidence to demonstrate why such overhauls are required. Many of these ideas are already in place, to varying degrees, in different areas of science as they are applicable (there are good and obvious reasons why medical trials involving humans have some of the most stringent protocols). However, to dismiss good science that has already been done, just because it doesn’t meet Crichton’s vague requirements, is absurd. Further, it is important that scientists show impartiality to results but is it really fair to require them to have no opinion in policy once evidence has been clearly demonstrated? Also, why should these same experts be asked to not work with politicians to guide policy when non-expert, science fiction authors do just that (honestly, I just can’t let that go)? Both proposals seem to rob those who set policy of their greatest resources to ensure the policies are grounded in good science.

Lastly, I openly confess that I am not a climate researcher nor even a hard scientist. My field is that of the applied sciences, namely structural engineering. However, it should be pointed out that the same is true of Michael Crichton. It should be noted that Crichton has not practiced medicine since the early seventies, to the best of my knowledge. He often uses his medical degree to give credence the science aspects of his fiction writing. That is fine to a point, but the fact that someone practiced medicine over 30 years ago does not make them an authority on all science topics. That some people view Crichton as a legitimate source of information on a topic such as climate science, or even the policy and protocols of data collection and research, is nearly laughable. I do not expect that of my audience here but I can at least assure anyone reading this that I have done my very best to obtain information from those who are doing the research I am discussing as well as reputable science journals and periodicals. Perhaps Mr. Crichton holds these sources in disdain when they disagree with his notion of how science should be but to be very blunt, Mr. Crichton’s opinion on how science should be done simply doesn’t matter all that much, nor should it. A lot has happened in all fields of science since Mr. Crichton stopped practicing medicine and, at least in the field of climate science, a great deal even happened even before he got started. Unlike Mr. Crichton, I see no need to hamstring experts in a field just because I was initially skeptical of their theories.

There certainly is a heightened politicalization of science now and we would do well to have ways of separating science from policy, at least the ideas if not the people involved. However, the notion that because some prior flawed ideas took hold in the popular realm of media and politics in no way lessens the impact of future science. Even if one does accept that SETI and the nuclear winter movements are flawed and psuedo-science, it is irrelevant to the current state of climate change and the fact that an overwhelming number of scientists do happen to agree with it’s hypothesis. While it may make for a great science fiction book, aliens, or the search for them, didn’t bring about global warming as we understand it. We did. Both in cause and the understanding of.

Dr. Michael Mann and his readers deserve some credit for some of the information included above, particularly regarding the IPCC contents (of which Mann is a partial author and I assumed has therefore read).