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).